Friday, January 23, 2009

Positive Stereotypes 2

In reply to my recent post about seemingly positive stereotypes that are disliked by the people they're applied to, one person brought up the problems with the 'Asians are good at math' stereotype.
This brings me to another type of positive stereotype - one that does readily allow you to take the perspective of the person being described, or ask their perspective. And this is the type of stereotype I see some people actually liking and accepting for themselves. In the autistic community, an example would be the stereotype that autistics are good with computers, or have excellent spatial skills. I've seen several autistics link their 'autistic pride' with these stereotypes, so clearly these are stereotypes that can be used for positive self-identification.
But these stereotypes, too, have problems with them, and some people dislike these positive stereotypes. It's my impression that the people who tend to dislike such stereotypes are the people the stereotypes don't fit. The Asians who are average or poor at math and the autistics who are average or poor at computer skills or spatial skills are the ones who tend to complain about these stereotypes (and others on their behalf).
I think there are two parts to this. Firstly, inaccurate stereotypes, whether positive or negative, can lead to misunderstanding. For example, an Asian getting C grades in math might be criticized for not working up to full potential, when in fact xe is doing the best xe can. Or an autistic might be encouraged to look for a career with computers, when xe has be constantly retaught how to start one up. If people don't realize that this individual doesn't fit that stereotype and never will, then there will be much frustration and angst when they try to make that person be what they aren't.
But there's a deeper issue than that. Many times, these positive stereotypes are an attempt to assert the worth of a devalued group. Certainly, that's the case with autism - I've even seen people use the stereotyped autistic talents to argue that we shouldn't all be aborted when or if they develop a prenatal test for autism. (Personally, I suspect that developing a prenatal test for autism will turn out like it has for MR - we'll find out autism is a multitude of different condition, some of which can be tested for and some cannot.) In a context where these stereotypes are used to prove our value and justify our very existence, there is an implication that a person who doesn't fit those stereotypes is not valueable, and should not exist. This implication, naturally, is very concerning to those who don't fit the positive stereotypes, and to people who care about them. As an autistic with low-average spatial skills (Raven's Progressive Matrices score 80), this is something I have personal experience with.
I've written about this before. I always think of Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer in this context. It seems that rather than just saying 'difference is not a bad thing, and everyone is valueable', some people try to prove the worth of various differences by finding some special talent associated with that difference. But that does nothing to assert the worth of people who lack the talent you've named, nor does it challenge the underlying idea that difference is a bad thing.

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