What Is a Stereotype?

What is a stereotype?

ThoughtCo. / Melissa Ling

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, even if they seem "positive," stereotypes are harmful.

Did You Know?

Even when framed as "positive," stereotypes of certain groups have negative effects. An example of this is the myth of the "model minority" that has attached itself broadly to people of Asian descent.

Stereotypes Vs. 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, for example, 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.


While stereotypes may refer to a specific gender, 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 group rather than Black people as a whole, 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 gender, one finds that stereotypes of Asian American men and Asian American women differ. For example, the women of a racial group may be deemed attractive due to fetishization 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 Black people from the Caribbean or Black people from African nations.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is a Stereotype?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-stereotype-2834956. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 7). What Is a Stereotype? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-stereotype-2834956 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is a Stereotype?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-stereotype-2834956 (accessed April 21, 2021).