The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines stereotype thusly:
n. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.
n. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.
Because human beings are pattern seeking, pattern recognizing creatures, we use a lot of stereotypes. Frequently, but not always, they’re pejorative. Fat people are slobs. Blondes are bimbos. Californians are mellow. Ivy Leaguers are elitists. Asian students are smart. The list could stretch on forever. If there’s a way to categorize people, there’s a stereotype associated with it.
These patterns, positive and negative, don’t spring from nowhere. They’re based on observation, association, and classification. Not to get too meta, but stereotypes are generalizations and, to generalize, they’re typically based on a kernel of truth. In fact, they tend to be accurate. Psychology Today:
…stereotype accuracy — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria — is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology. The correlations of stereotypes with criteria range from .4 to over .9, and average almost .8 for cultural stereotypes (the correlation of beliefs that are widely shared with criteria) and .5 for personal stereotypes (the correlation of one individual’s stereotypes with criteria, averaged over lots of individuals). The average effect in social psychology is about .20. Stereotypes are more valid than most social psychological hypotheses.
This makes some degree of evolutionary sense. “Playing with tigers = bad” might be grossly unfair to Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, but it probably kept more than one of our ancestors alive. Using stereotypes is likely about as hardcoded into human DNA as something can be.
I am untroubled, therefore, by the use of many stereotypes, and, like most people, I can find them helpful in communicating. This is not universally true, of course, as a good many stereotypes are offensive and deserve condemnation and/or mockery. But it’s important to note that stereotypes are so embedded that they’re even codified in law. Maybe your 12 year-old is an amazing car driver, but most 12 year-olds suck at it, and as a society we’ve said, “no way” to anyone that age hopping behind the wheel on a public road. It’s a stereotype that preteen drivers are terrible, but it’s a fair example of one that we’re all willing to accept without additional pondering. Anyone who says, “You shouldn’t use stereotypes, period!, hasn’t given the concept enough thought.
If, however, they’re talking about applying stereotypes to an individual then we’re in accord. Stereotypes fall apart and become harmful at the individual level. No person deserves to be judged on the basis of stereotypes because they do not hold. I would go further, and argue that to elevate a classification over an individual’s humanity is an evil (or sin, for those of a religious bent). That is to say that without proof or experience to back them up, stereotypes are inaccurate and morally wrong when applied to an individual.
If I think, for example, that “women are terrible drivers,” we need only to turn to Danica Patrick to find an exception. Even if women were collectively terrible drivers—false, by the way—not every woman is. Stereotypes fail utterly at the individual level. Setting aside any moral judgment for a moment, stereotypes just don’t work in the context of a particular person even if they might be true in a large one.
This is important practically because if, say, I’m hiring a driver for my company, and I pick the male candidate over the female candidate because “women are terrible drivers,” well, I’m both an idiot and I’m breaking anti-discrimination laws. An overly broad generalization is no way to determine the suitability of a person for a task or anything else.
But the problem of stereotypes as applied to the individual is deeper than that. We are more than a collection of identities. It is unfair to judge or to restrict anyone, positively or negatively, based on an identity that they might hold. Maybe most little girls want to play with dolls, but if my daughter prefers to climb trees, it is crucial to her personal development that I don’t confine her ability to grow even if it violates our society’s gender roles and sexual stereotypes. (Maybe especially if violates those norms.)
Stereotypes also run the risk of depriving people of agency, the right to determine their own course of action. Just recently I was told that because Black culture tends to be more gregarious, Black students are being unfairly disciplined for not being quiet in a classroom setting. The former stereotype may well be true, but the idea that any individual is, because of their race, incapable of controlling their behavior is absurd. I can’t imagine that a school or school district saying this sort of thing to minority students is in any way helpful or positive.
And the only alternative would seem to be to lower expectations for minority kids. Classroom management is hard enough, but now we’re going to lower the bar for certain students to act out and disrupt the educational process because their “culture” is more boisterous? This denial of a person’s agency—one’s ability to make their own choices and be responsible for the consequences—is precisely the argument one would expect from white supremacists.
I strongly suspect that most people, but certainly not all, on the political left mean well when making these types of arguments. But they’re getting it wrong. Unless more people come to a better understanding of stereotypes, how and when they they’re useful versus when they’re despicable, society will continue to move sideways in race relations, the gender divide, and so on.