What Is a Stereotype?

Stereotype stencil

Jennifer Wu/Flickr

Stereotypes are characteristics imposed upon groups of people because of their race, nationality, and sexual orientation. These characteristics tend to be oversimplifications of the groups involved, and while some people truly do embody the traits of their stereotype, they are not necessarily representative of all people within that group. Stereotypes are not always accurate and even if positive, can be harmful.

Did You Know?

Stereotypes are often considered to be negative perceptions of certain groups but in reality, stereotypes can also be positive. An example of this is the myth of the "model minority" that has attached itself broadly to people of Asian descent.

Stereotypes Versus Generalizations

While all stereotypes are generalizations, not all generalizations are stereotypes. Stereotypes are widely circulated oversimplifications of a group of people, while generalizations can be based more on personal experience, not a widely-accepted factor.

In the United States, certain racial groups have been linked to stereotypes such as being good at math, athletics, and dancing. These stereotypes are so well-known that the average American wouldn’t hesitate if asked to identify which racial group in this country has a reputation for excelling in basketball. In short, when one stereotypes, one repeats the cultural mythology already present in a particular society.

On the other hand, a person can make a generalization about an ethnic group that hasn’t been perpetuated in society. For example, someone who meets a few individuals from a particular country and finds them to be quiet and reserved may say that all citizens of the country in question are quiet and reserved. A generalization such as this doesn’t allow for diversity within groups and may result in stigmatization and discrimination of groups if the stereotypes linked to them are largely negative.

Intersectionality

While stereotypes may refer to a specific sex, race, religion, or country, often they link various aspects of identity together. This is known as intersectionality. A stereotype about black gay men, for example, would involve race, gender, and sexual orientation. Although such a stereotype targets a specific segment of African Americans rather than blacks generally, it’s still problematic to insinuate that black gay men are all the same. Too many other factors make up any one person's identity to ascribe a fixed list of characteristics to him.

Differing stereotypes can also be present within larger groups, resulting in things like gender-based stereotypes within the same race. Certain stereotypes apply to Asian Americans generally, but when the Asian American population is broken down by sex, one finds that stereotypes of Asian-American men and Asian-American women differ. For example, the women of a racial group may be viewed as attractive and the men in that same racial group may be viewed as the exact opposite.

Even stereotypes applied to a racial group become inconsistent when members of that group are broken down by origin. Stereotypes about black Americans differ from those about blacks from the Caribbean or blacks from African nations.

Is There Truth in Stereotypes?

It’s often said that stereotypes are rooted in truth, but there is much debate over the role that stereotypes play, especially among professionals in fields like social psychology and sociology. In some cases, professionals argue that a stereotype enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we can relate to similar experiences we have had in the past. However, stereotypes also make us ignore differences between individuals; therefore we think things about people that might not be true (i.e. make generalizations).