How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t have any biases against any people!”? Whenever I hear people comment that they are free of biases, prejudice, or stereotypes in their daily living, I always question how authentic or honest they are being with others, and perhaps even themselves? As human beings, we engage in a process of “cognitive shortcuts” in which we tend to classify our environment and other humans into categories. Stereotyping is a categorical process that the human species consciously and unconsciously engages in that serves as a mechanism of trying to arrange our world in an orderly fashion where people are identified as belonging to groups based on race, gender, nationality, religion, ideology, social economic class, etc. We develop a set of characteristics associated with these groups are seen as being representative to the individuals that compose these groups (Crisp & Turner, 2010; Fiske, 2010; Feldman, 2009; Stangor, 2009; Wright & Taylor, 2007).
Traditionally, stereotypes have been associated as a phenomenon that leads to bias, prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization of people (Crisp & Turner, 2010; Feldman, 2009). Hence, researchers, academians, social scientists, and others have examined ways to reduce or eliminate stereotypes. Although stereotyping can lead to erroneous beliefs about a group of people, and individuals, the schematic processing does help individuals navigate their social worlds. The stereotypes we hold have been socialized through others around us, as well our vicarious experiences we have encountered through living. For example, living in Saudi Arabia, I found out through my own experiences of living, that men with long beards and short thobes (the traditional white dress of Arab men in the Gulf region) would typically not feel comfortable to interact with me because I am female. The first time I offered my hand to shake with an individual that had these traits, I was told “I do not shake hands with females”, I found myself blushing with embarrassment. Other experiences and comments I heard from others , as well as the media led me to develop a negative stereotype whenever I saw a Middle Eastern man with a long beard, and short thobe.
These stereotypes can often help us, but there is also a darker side that may lead us to making erroneous conclusions and decisions as well. My lesson in this happened one time on a return flight from Europe to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I was sitting in first class with my husband and across the aisle was another man dressed in designer labeled clothes from head to toes. I viewed him as progressive, open-minded, and most likely well educated. Another man who had a long-beard, a short thobe, and was wearing the traditional ship-ships (traditional Arab sandals worn by men in the Gulf) boarded the plane with his family. I automatically assumed this man was conservative and represented repression to me. During the flight, the two men were exchanging heated words in Arabic. Based on my stereotypes, and my limited comprehension of Arabic, I faulted the man with the long beard. Later as I discussed the events with my husband, I was astonished to find out that the well-dressed man across the aisle from us was upset that the man with the long beard had been allowed to put his carry-on in the first class cabin, even though he was ticketed for economy seating. In reality, the individual who had been the oppressor in this situation had been the man who was well dressed and using an individual’s ticketing status as a social construct in which to marginalize another human being. I found myself feeling uncomfortable with my own recognition that I had jumped to conclusions of the situation based on the superficial appearances of the two men.
Instead of eliminating stereotypical processes, we need to focus on developing a better understanding of how stereotypical thinking can lead to situations where negative outcomes, such as prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization can occur (Aronson & McGline, 2009; Crisp & Turner, 2010; Fiske, 2010). More specifically, we need to acknowledge some of our own stereotypical thinking and biases that exist as part of the process of being human with our need to categorize and classify the people around us. By making these personal acknowledgements to ourselves, it gives us the understanding and reasoning to question at times our own actions, assumptions, and behaviors that can at times serve to bias our views of others.
Aronson, J. & McGline, M. (2009). Ch. 8: Stereotype and social identity threat. In Nelson, T. (Ed.) Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010). Chapter 7: Prejudice. In Essential social psychology (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Fisk, S. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Feldman, R. (2009). Essentials of understanding psychology (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Stangor, C. (2009). Ch. 1: The study of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination within social psychology: A quick history of theory and research. In Nelson, T. (Ed.) Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Wright, S. & Taylor, D. (2007). Chapter 16: The social psychology of cultural diversity: Social stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. In Hogg, M. A., & Cooper, J. M. (Eds.). (2007). The Sage handbook of social psychology (concise student ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage