Stereotypes are fast and easy, but they are lies, and the truth takes its timeAward-winning and critically acclaimed author
Reflecting on your own equity journey, when did you first become aware of the term “bias”? What about the term “stereotype”? For many of us, bias is a term that may be in our more recent memory as it became mainstream in the last few years, especially “unconscious bias”. However, stereotypes are likely something you were exposed to at a younger age, and the term may feel more familiar. As youth, we were surrounded by messages of stereotypes to create a single story about the social groups we saw in our school systems and media (what it looks like, sounds like, and even means in a social setting; to be popular, smart, a theater kid, jocks, art kids, band kids, etc.). Stereotypes and bias have been part of our entire lives; it’s time we really unpack them. Today, we will spend some time together on the connection of these two words and the importance of learning how they show up in our own minds so that we can each work to challenge the negative or harmful assumptions we hold.
Biases affect our understanding, actions and decisions unconsciously. Our brains use bias to make sense of the world and help us process information faster to make judgements. Everyone has biases and they are activated involuntarily and without our conscious awareness or intentional control.
How is this different from stereotypes? A stereotype is a belief — positive or negative — about a group’s characteristics that we apply to individual members of that group. Stereotypes build on our bias and our brain’s ability to make quick mental shortcuts. Stereotypes work by creating a story about a group of people, usually different from you in some way (based on religion, gender, race, disability, etc.) that creates a broad assumption about all people in that group. We must remember all individuals are unique and different from one another, even when they share membership in a social group that is different from our own or the same as our own. One person can never reflect the experience of a whole group or represent a whole group of people no matter how many shared identities we hold.
Stereotypes work to reinforce power of the dominant group in society (white, male, wealthy, cisgender, able-bodied) by creating negative and false assumptions about whole groups of people that result in dehumanization. Stereotypes are dangerous and are the seeds from which prejudice takes root and discrimination grows. In this way, stereotypes get in the way of recognizing the real problem — discrimination and structural inequalities. They can cause us to quickly blame the person and jump to conclusions rather than look at the whole picture and evaluate. Stereotypes are especially harmful for the role they play in affirming the narratives around people with privileged identities that lead to discrimination in marginalized groups. Privilege is unearned access or advantages granted to specific groups of people because of their membership in a social group. Privilege can be based on a variety of social identities such as race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, ability status, sexuality, age, education level and more (Learn more about the foundations of privilege).
To fight prejudice and discrimination, we must also fight within ourselves the tendency to rely on stereotypes and work to be more aware of the shortcuts our brain uses. It can also be seen like this: Stereotypes (specific beliefs) are the basis of prejudice (general negative beliefs), and these together can lead to discrimination (exclusionary, negative behaviors).
No one wants to feel invisible and like their character doesn’t matter. To make the world more inclusive and equitable, call attention to bias and stereotypes when they show up in your work, school, family and community. And don’t forget, we all have personal self-reflection work to do so we can uncover our own personal biases and stereotypes and learn to develop counter-behaviors. We must all work to treat each person as an individual, because they are.