Stereotypes are useful cognitive calling cards
by Melvyn L Fein
July 28, 2013 11:00 PM | 1838 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Generally when I write about stereotyping, as I did regarding the Trayvon Martin affair, someone is bound to accuse me of racism. This time around was no different. I was not surprised, for despite the standard calls for a national discussion about race, anyone who is politically incorrect can expect to be vilified.

Let me be perfectly plain, stereotyping is not the problem it is made out to be. It is a normal way of understanding a complex world that moreover can be helpful if it is not abused. Stereotypes are essentially cognitive calling cards that enable us to interpret what is happening around us when we have no further information.

The problem with these simplified generalizations is that many of us continue to credit them after we learn that they don’t really apply. Thus, we often stereotype African-Americans as having rhythm, whereas anyone who has seen Gen. Colin Powell dance must understand this characterization does not fit him.

As for myself, I am originally a New York City Jew. Consequently, people who do not know me often assume that I must be liberal. Why do they do so? The answer is obvious — it is because most New York Jews are liberals.

But should I get bent out of shape when they make this mistake? Should I berate them verbally or attempt to beat them into submission? Or does it make more sense merely to correct them and move on?

In fact, George Zimmerman had every right to consider Trayvon Martin suspicious. Where and when he was, as well as how he was dressed, sent up red flags that suggested a need to investigate. Furthermore, coming to this conclusion did not give Martin permission to assault Zimmerman.

Martin, it is also true, did not deserve to die as a result of his transgression. This was a tragedy that all decent people abhor. But neither does this calamity provide justification for threatening Zimmerman’s life or concluding that white Americans are as racist as their ancestors.

To bolster my argument, let me tell a story that I have shared many times — including at KSU. During my 20s I worked at a summer camp with a young Dane who was visiting our country for the first time. Fascinated with how we differed from his homeland, he expressed a desire to see Harlem.

Having worked in Harlem, I volunteered to take him there. Beguiled with the romanticism of a place he had only read about, he was overjoyed at the prospect. And so, when we later walked down 125th Street, his head was on a swivel as he took in the unaccustomed sights.

Then, about a block and a half away, we spotted a gaggle of young men standing on a corner handing things to one another. My coworker immediately grabbed for his camera so that he could record the event for himself and his friends.

When I come this part of the tale, my students, especially the young women, look up in horror. What happened? Did you get beaten? I then reassure them that because of my stereotypes I made my companion put the camera away. This was because I, as an American, assumed we were looking at a drug deal, whereas he, in his inexperience, had not reached this conclusion.

My generalization, I remain confident, protected us from harm. Mind you, those street-corner occupants could have been passing around baseball trading cards. They were too far away to be sure. My interpretation might therefore have done them a disservice. Nevertheless I believe it was reasonable.

Having been mugged twice on my way to work and having a lunch buddy (who incidentally was a classmate of Martin Luther King at Morehouse College) assaulted so brutally on his way to work that he was hospitalized for three weeks, I believe I earned the right to be wary.

What do you think? Don’t our individual and collective experiences deserve to influence how we see the world?

Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.

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