Are racial stereotypes okay?

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By Nick DAngelo

Of course racial and ethnic stereotypes are not okay, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We’re all guilty of it — the humor and the comments. For the most part, the vast majority of us do not mean them to be offensive, cruel or even racist. They’re merely a “social commentary,” right? While that may be the intention, the comments and the stereotypes are hardly appropriate. I was never truly an advocate for the importance of sensitivity until last week when I sat in on a talk by a Union alumnus.

It was an interesting discussion about the alumnus’ post-Union career, filled with advice for all of us who will be navigating the real world soon enough. But halfway through the discussion he turned his attention to the Teamsters Union. “I don’t want to get into it right now, but they were founded by Jimmy Hoffa and connected to the mob,” he told us. “And they’re still shady. If I read you a roster right now you’d think they were all mobsters — they’re all really Italian names.”

While I wasn’t offended by the stereotype that all Italians must be mobsters, it did force me to start thinking about the fairness of the remark. I’m no stranger to the humorous typecast. I was once cast as the put-together mobster, “Society Max,” in a high school production of Guys and Dolls because of my Italian complexion. My dad used to keep a CD in his glove compartment (of a black sedan, nonetheless) titled “Mob Hits,” including singles from Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. We were guilty of entertaining our own stereotype!

In a 2004 article for Law and Human Behavior, Sandra Graham of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Brian S. Lowery of Stanford University, conducted a study on “unconscious racial stereotypes.” The survey focused on the juvenile justice system and court officers’ attitudes when exposed to subliminal words related to race. It found that while officers were not racially prejudiced, those conditioned with racial stereotypes exhibited more negative trait ratings, greater culpability and endorsed harsher punishments than those who had not been conditioned.

While the majority of attempts to deal with  racial stereotypes, including the Graham and Lowery paper, focus on prejudice towards Blacks, the issue is far broader. Katz and Braly conducted one of the first formal surveys of stereotypes in 1933, and found that “ethnic stereotypes are widespread, and shared by members of a particular social group.” The results of the limited questionnaire showed that individuals had clear stereotypes of certain social groups, which they adhered to even if they did not truly believe the stereotypes themselves. Among them are the most classic ethnic concepts: Jews as shrewd and cheap, Blacks as lazy and Japanese as sly and cunning.

More modern psychologists explain that stereotypes are a social tool used by human beings to simplify our complex world. They allow us to process information quickly when meeting new people and lead to social categorization. McLeod explains that it is this social categorization, assigning traits and characteristics to varying social groups that leads to the inevitable prejudiced attitudes that all of us have subconsciously developed.

During the 2009 Special Olympic World Winter Games, the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign was established to rid our society of the nascent “r-word.” I was a junior in high school at the time, and as one can imagine in an all-boys school, the “r-word” (along with a myriad of colorful locution) was thrown around a lot.

My best friend, who had a handicapped older sister, was constantly lecturing his peers on the inappropriateness of the language. It didn’t mean what we thought it meant. We were being harsh, cruel and insensitive without even knowing it. He was right. Since those episodes, I’ve made a conscious effort to strip the “r-word” from my vocabulary — and our subconscious ethnic stereotypes should be approached the same way.

Make our campus, and our world, a little more sensitive. To borrow the phrase of President George H.W. Bush, envision “a kind, gentler” community. Make a conscious effort to end the subconscious beliefs, and tell your friends to do the same.

In other words, make them an offer they can’t refuse—or we’ll make them a nice pair of cement shoes and have ‘em sleep with the fishes. Just kidding.

 

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