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Last week I made the grievous mistake of uttering the line “stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.” Immediately I was reprimanded by a classmate who felt personally harmed by my statement because it is often an argument used to end conversations that are meant to challenge our biases or move beyond narrow understandings of difference. My statement itself was undeveloped, and standing alone, it is badly mistaken. And so I would like to elaborate upon it, partially to soothe my conscience but mostly to warn against the careless use of it.
Stereotypes have truth to them. Truth, that is, with an asterisk. And here’s the asterisk:
Stereotypes are gross generalizations of groups of people that share a certain characteristic but not all. They are an oversimplification of humanity that creates in-group, out-group attitudes in order to perpetuate hate and division. They are used to reduce people down to a few ideas rather than to recognize a person as a complex and equally valued member of society.
I’d like to break down a couple of common stereotypes.
Black men are bad fathers who can’t and won’t take care of their kids.
We’ve seen the memes that depict black men as halfway out the door when their partner gets pregnant and the TV shows where black youth get into trouble because they don’t have a proper father figure in their life. Even Obama in 2008 denounced black fathers for not being present, citing personal responsibility as a key to good parenting. Clearly, these men’s skin pigment is directly correlated with their parenting commitment.
Or maybe, just maybe we wouldn’t have this issue if our criminal justice system weren’t so twisted. The War on Drugs is arguably a back-channel method of enforcing Jim Crow laws and institutionalized oppression back upon African-Americans. Statistics show that black and white people are equally (if not more) likely to buy, sell and use illegal drugs and yet we aren’t seeing white people arrested, charged and imprisoned for these crimes at the same rate. It is no surprise that a history of racism and oppression has left traces of prejudice and discrimination on most every aspect of American life, including the criminal justice system and the legacy of unequal housing practices. To pretend that we are in a post-racial period is a cop-out because that ideal claims a certain legitimacy of the way things are now. That would assume that black men are criminals by nature, that the income inequality and instability African-Americans face is due to character flaws, not institutionalized racism. This is simply not the case.
On top of that, this history of racism has also affected the way in which our society regards black sexuality. It is seen as something animalistic, uncontrollable and less privileged. These false myths only lump together unique individuals under one sexual archetype, which in turn dehumanizes them.
In this case, an entire group of people are being mischaracterized through simplification because those spouting this stereotype refuse to see the underlying causes and systems working to create this phenomena.
Feminists hate men and will end up dying alone with 14 cats. We’re all feminazis. Oh, and feminists are probably just mad lesbians because men don’t want them.
And while there are some extremists who take feminism to a place where it is no longer feminism (which is also probably where these terrible stereotypes arise), we cannot discount the movement under that tenet. Feminism, correctly interpreted, advocates for equality of all genders. Contrary to popular belief, feminism also aims to benefit men. Gender equality is a two-way street. I agree that men are also falsely characterized and receive an immense amount of societal pressure to present themselves a certain way and fill certain roles, just as women are.
While the name of this movement doesn’t really help our case, neither do these misinterpretations and stereotypes about people who support feminism. The stigma against the idea of equality for women is a disturbing one. Yes, some feminists come off as angry. But do we really think they don’t have good reason to be? I mean, really, how much would it hurt to give women a truly equal shot at being considered for the same jobs, or being paid the same as men, for instance? How much would it hurt not to judge women for their physical attractiveness, but for their knowledge?
Stereotypes and push-back against feminism is so damaging to the movement because they entirely misrepresent the cause and paint it in a negative light. These stigmas are so strong that Emma Watson was encouraged not to use the word “feminism” in her powerful speech before the UN because it would make people “uncomfortable.” Give me a break. The only thing “uncomfortable” about feminism is the inevitability of women being valued the same in society as men always have.
Here, the stereotype serves to distract from the actuality of the circumstance because we would rather believe the stereotype than give the truth consideration. It is derived from false circumstances.
There is more going on beneath the surface than narrowly-construed stereotypes would like to admit. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, but the reason is that they are tools with which to devalue whole groups of people who happen to live under more complex contexts and conditions than most people care to know or admit. Stereotypes are stereotypes — that is, they exist — because we have failed to look beyond the societal patterns that cause them.