Stereotypes are Natural, but Important to Counter

Obviously the big story in social change this week is the Google Manifesto, where an engineer was fired for “perpetuating stereotypes” against women.

Enough people are talking about whether the Manifesto was valid or not, and whether the engineer deserved to get fired, so I instead am thinking about stereotypes themselves.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when a woman lamented about how people felt almost affronted when they found out her partner was female, as if she was somehow hiding something from them, or that they should have known.

Stereotypes aren’t inherently bad. The brain uses stereotypes as a shortcut to help us understand a situation quickly, so as to free our brain power for new information. It’s like when you walk into a room. You don’t need to relearn each time what a floor is, or a wall, or a window. From our memories and our learning, we can spend as little brain power as possible on these items and instead focus on other things.

We apply this principal to everything, automatically, without ever thinking about it. Including to people.

Like with the woman I spoke with a few weeks ago. When people found out she was gay, they felt an unpleasant brain jolt because she didn’t fit into their idea of a gay person. It almost feels as if they discover that the inanimate floor beneath them is in fact a living creature, and actually has been this whole time. Their whole world is turned around—is anything they think they know correct??

Stereotypes and assumptions are so hard to break because they are so incredibly automatic. The good news is, there are ways to combat this.

From an individual perspective, you can grow more aware of what stereotypes you hold and learn to pause and question yourself.

From a cultural perspective, we need to continue providing examples counter to stereotypes. For example, The Big Bang Theory is a huge stereotype in its own right, and most of its humor is based on that. But in later seasons, they added female scientists Bernadette and Amy as regulars. Because of the popularity of the show, this helps to counter the assumption in many people’s minds that scientists are only nerdy, mostly white guys. (Now for them to introduce a black woman!)

This is one reason why diversity is so important. It’s not just about the person who is now included—it’s also about other people seeing him or her and adding that person to their mind’s description of a scientist, or an engineer, or a liberal, or a rural person. This way, when someone next thinks of a scientist, their brain will at least be forced to consider a possibility beyond a nerdy white male, rather than filling in the blanks so automatically.

This process is not swift. It takes time to counter the ingrained stereotypes that we use to get through the day without being overwhelmed. And this is part of the reason why there have been recent movements to include more African Americans in Hollywood movies and to have workplaces with different genders and races. Children growing up can see people they identify with in many different facets of life, expanding and giving precedent to their future opportunities.

So, don’t beat yourself up for stereotyping. It’s a natural way for people to get from dawn to dusk. But, do be open to questioning your stereotypes (especially around people), and stay active in introducing counters by seeking out movies, shows, and other media featuring people who challenge your automatic thoughts.

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