Overcoming Stereotypes

What Are Racial Stereotypes?

Racial stereotypes are automatic and exaggerated mental pictures that we hold about all members of a particular racial group. When we stereotype people based on race, we don’t take into account individual differences. Because our racial stereotypes are so rigid, we tend to ignore or discard any information that is not consistent with the stereotype that we have developed about the racial group.

How Do We Develop Racial Stereotypes?

We develop our racial stereotypes in a variety of ways. On a very simplistic level, it’s human nature to categorize people. It’s our way of making a complex world simpler. From an early age, we learn to place people and objects into categories. However, when we’re very young, we tend to put less of an emphasis on attributing values to these categories. As we grow older and are influenced by parents, peers, and the media, our tendency to label different racial groups as superior/good or inferior/bad increases significantly. Additionally, the less contact we have with a particular racial group, the more likely we will have negative feelings about the group. Also, any negative experiences that we have with a member of a particular group will strengthen our racial stereotypes and create fears about particular races. Based on our fears, we then develop an us-versus-them mentality that tends to be self-protective in nature. As a result, we miss opportunities to learn and thrive from our differences.

Are Our Racial Stereotypes Harmful?

Some people might say, “There’s no harm in having racial stereotypes or making racial/ethnic jokes based on stereotypes. People these days are so politically correct and should just loosen up. Anyway, there’s always a kernel of truth in every stereotype.” In some instances, all of the above might be true. However, in most cases, racial stereotypes are harmful because they ignore the full humanity and uniqueness of all people. When our perceptions of different races are distorted and stereotypical, it’s demeaning, devaluing, limiting, and hurtful to others. In some cases, people who are repeatedly labeled in negative ways will begin to develop feelings of inferiority. Some times, these feelings of inferiority can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that perpetuate the stereotype. Racial stereotypes can also foster feelings of hate and aggression that might lead to a false sense of entitlement and superiority. For those individuals who have power, this can lead to their engaging in discriminatory and racist practices.

How Do We Overcome Our Racial Stereotypes?

Because of their harmful effects, we should make a real commitment to try to overcome our racial stereotypes. This can be achieved by first acknowledging that we’re human and that we do harbor racial stereotypes. Next, we should work to become more aware of our inner thoughts and feelings and how they affect our beliefs and actions. When we have a stereotypical thought about a racial group, we should follow it up with an alternative thought based on factual information that discounts the stereotype. We can obtain this factual information by leaving our comfort zones and exposing ourselves to people of different races. Also, we should be willing to engage in honest dialogue with others about race that at times might be difficult, risky, and uncomfortable. We should also seek out media portrayals of different races that are realistic and positive. Attending churches, plays, concerts, and movies that celebrate diversity will also broaden our worldviews. As we gain more awareness and knowledge about racial groups, not only will our racial stereotypes lessen, but we will also become better equipped to educate and challenge others about their racial stereotypes. As we change ourselves, we can elicit changes in others through our examples and the quality of our conversations. In doing this, we work to create a society in which all races are valued, appreciated, and embraced.

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