Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Seemingly Positive Stereotypes

Some people may be surprised at how rights activists sometimes object to stereotypes that seem positive, such as the 'noble savage' or 'innocent retard' stereotypes*.'Why would they be upset about being portrayed positively?' people ask. In reply, many activists fumble with comments about not wanting to be seen as different or wanting to be viewed as people, which often don't clarify much.
I think I've figured out one of the real problems with those stereotypes. It's a matter of the perspectives they suggest. When you think of a 'noble savage' or an 'innocent retard', you typically don't think of that hypothetical person from xyr own perspective. You think of these people from the perspective of an observer. And how would you go about understanding their perspectives? You can't ask them - the 'innocent retard' would probably not understand the question, while the 'noble savage' would reply in some riddle you can't understand. At least, that's the perception, and comments from people viewed in the lenses of those two stereotypes will be interpreted in those ways.
Native people and disabled people are not like nondisabled whites. We all have things in common, sure, but there are also differences, and often the stereotypes catch an element of those differences. But they hide the most important perspective on that group - their own. If your stereotype is of someone you can't imagine being, yet can predict the actions of, then it's probably not a stereotype that the people described will be happy with.

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Blogger Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

I don't know about in Canada, but in the US, white people sometimes stereotype Asian-Americans as being always necessarily intelligent, used to receiving A's in school, hard working, and very good in maths and sciences. These are "positive" stereotypes, so others don't understand why some Asian people are discomforted by them.

But, any steretotype creates artifical assumptions and expectations that simply cannot match up to messy, divergent reality. Some Asians may "only" get B's in school--not because they don't try but because they aren't necessarily as brilliant as the stereotype. They then have to put up with being asked why they didn't do better, even though B's are still perfectly decent grades. Or they may earn A's by working very very hard -- only to have their achievement dismissed because they are "used to it." It can be upsetting to see a white classmate praised highly for working hard to earn a B+ or A- when they might have worked twice as hard for their A but with no acknowledgment of their tremendous effort. Or, an Asian person may be far more interested in, say, psychology or painting than in math or science. They may have to deal with puzzled or patronizing comments from others who don't expect to encounter their "abnormal" (stereotype-busting) interests.

No one likes any stereotype, including the supposedly "positive" ones, in part because they can prevent others from seeing the real person behind the steretotype. Also, they can create expectations that maybe can't necessarily be met (like the Asian student who may do perfectly fine in school, but not straight A's), which can create unreasonable pressure.

4:30 PM  

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