Sunday, August 28, 2016

Keep in mind: stereotypes cut both ways

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 28 August 2016

How would you describe the “typical American?”

Our nearest neighbor and biggest trading partner, Canada, sees Americans as optimistic and hard-working, but intolerant, arrogant, greedy, and violent. Too bad there is no data on our other neighbor, Mexico.

China, a reason Donald Trump offers for why America isn’t great anymore, has a negative view of Americans. Less than half view us as optimistic, less than 40 percent view us as hard-working, less than 30 percent view us as tolerant but 60 percent view us as arrogant, about half view us as greedy, and just over half as violent.

The characteristics of the “typical American” were the subject of a Pew Research Center survey released Dec. 11, 2015 Pew offered three positive characteristics (patriotic, intelligent and honest) and two negative characteristics (selfish and lazy) that American respondents indicated described the typical American. Go ahead, do your own rating. Then, which of the following additional characteristics do you associate with typical Americans: optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant, greedy and violent? This latter list was part of another Pew Research Center survey of the U.S. and 15 other nations about Americans.

Typical American. Seems like an innocuous term. Is typical African-American or typical Muslim or typical Mexican as innocuous? Are you getting a little nervous when you read “typical African-American” or “typical white person.” What is the difference between asking what is the typical American like than asking what is the typical?

If there are any of my former students reading they might recognize this definition of stereotype: A generalization (idea) about people; a mental image that summarizes what is believed to be typical about a group of people. Like “typical American.”

What is your stereotype of the typical American? If you are like those Pew surveyed chances are you stereotype Americans as patriotic, honest, intelligent, selfish, optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant and greedy. It’s a coin flip whether you see Americans as lazy. And a 4 in 10 chance you see Americans as violent.

Among the nations surveyed, the largest nation on earth does not have a very good view of Americans. One might argue, “well, they are just stereotyping us.” That would be right. And what is the knee jerk response of someone called out for using a stereotype? “There is always a basis of truth in a stereotype.” So, which part is the truth?

How many of you think you are a “typical American?” Describe yourself using these characteristics. Are you “typical?” Who will describe themselves as optimistic, hard-working, tolerant, arrogant, greedy, violent, patriotic, honest, intelligent, selfish, and lazy? My guess is that there are far more who see themselves in terms of the positive characteristics than the negative ones. Few people mind being associated with positive stereotypes. Personally, I could not have answered the Pew study. Americans are all those things; just among my friendship network there are optimists and pessimists, hard-workers and lazy types, humbles and arrogants, violents, pacifists, liars and cheats.
We generally associate stereotypes with something negative. Stereotypes are necessary “precursors” to prejudice and racism. A common response of someone confronted with using a stereotype is to object and deny it. Yet, if we harbor stereotypes about ourselves, why then is it hard to accept we harbor stereotypes about others?
How many Chinese people have actually ever met an American? Yet, they seem to share a distinct stereotype of us. What is the basis of that stereotype? Where are they getting that image from? I doubt many Poles have met many Americans either, yet, three times as many Poles view Americans as tolerant as do Chinese? Nearly 70 percent of Greeks view Americans as greedy while only a fifth of Italians do. Why such a stark difference?

Now think about how you think of other groups especially within the U.S., such as Mexicans, African Americans, European-Americans, Asians, Muslims and others. Are you embracing stereotypes? What is the basis of your views? Broad experience with individuals from those groups or snippets of things you read or hear in the media, friends and family members’ remarks?

Keep in mind, 72 percent of Greeks think we are arrogant, 68 percent think we are greedy, and 68 percent of Australians think we are violent. Is that a fair characterization of you? Don’t like that feeling of being stereotyped? Neither do those who you stereotype. That goes for racial and ethnic groups as well as the supporters of our current presidential candidates.
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