Stereotypes: A Necessary Evil?

Steven Schmidt | Contributing Writer
Justin Lowther | Photographer

Steven Schmidt, President of the Vets Club
Steven Schmidt, President of the Vets Club

For more than thirty years, I have found myself changing my learned stereotypes; grappling with the various prejudices that I have carried in my head over the years. Personally, I was not hung up on race or nationality, but on gender and sexuality. This stereotype was to become my double-headed coin.

When I was younger, I was against the thought of allowing women in the military to serve in combat roles. In reality, I was only regurgitating the socially accepted stereotypes of that time period.

I saw the first side of my double-headed coin during my marriage. By the time I was twenty-three my wife had blessed me with three daughters, and the stereotypes I held of women in the military were debunked. I raised my girls to believe that gender was not a reason to say the words, “I can’t.” No one was ever going to tell my girls they couldn’t compete based solely on their sex!

I led a perfect lifestyle with one house, two-car garage, three children, and a father-knows-best attitude for many years.

Then, my eldest daughter introduced me to my future daughter-in-law and the second head of my coin came to light. Again, I had a choice to make: I could stand by my stereotypes and alienate myself from my family, or I could learn and adjust my point of view.

Can we humans really free ourselves of prejudging and stereotyping, and if we can, should we? Or do we embrace our humanness, consciousness, and vigilance while using sound judgment? Human brains are hard wired to be exclusive, not inclusive. It is not a bad thing. It is the only way we can walk through life, although, it must not rule our lives to the point that we become narrow minded.

Imagine: you’re ready to drive out of the Cub parking lot, but first you need to survey all the cars in the parking lot to determine how you will safely drive out of the lot. In your mind every car is different, right? Recognizing the differences between the cars is not necessary to avoid hitting another car, which means you just stereotyped. So in some ways stereotyping is essential to navigating life.

Stereotyping is something we all engage in daily. Society today tells us that it is bad and we are encouraged to suppress this innate human trait. In his article “The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping” David M. Amodio states, “Social motivations, such as the desire to affiliate or compete with others, rank among the most potent of human drives. Not surprisingly, the capacity to discern ‘us’ from ‘them’ is fundamental in the human brain.”

The human brain categorizes everything from pencils, buildings, and animals. Humans like stereotypes and we love our boxes, and we love putting everything into our boxes!

Frank Paiva, an openly gay adolescent, wrote, “A Prince Charming for the Prom (Not ever after, Though),” to discuss the fact that he frequently attends the high school proms of his female friends. Frank describes himself as a progressive; however, we see signs of stereotyping slipping into his article. His reasoning for girls picking a gay man versus attending prom with a straight man is, “The girls … understand I won’t turn into a drunken, groping creep in the middle of the evening.”

In saying this, Frank stereotypes straight men. We are quick to agree with Frank when we pigeon hole individuals whose actions are considered out of the normal socially acceptable behavior; however, we are not as quick to recognize it when it is used against the long established social norms.

Justin Britt-Gibson addresses stereotypes of being a minority black male his article, “What is wrong with this picture?” While on a New York subway, Britt-Gibson’s Caucasian girlfriend displayed affection by laying her head on his shoulder. He notes, “an elderly black woman, an onlooker, shaking her head in disapproval,” at the situation, but without asking the elderly black woman why she was shaking her head, he also made an assumption about her.

Maybe a fly, perhaps it was Britt-Gibson’s recent Mohawk haircut, or clothing choice? The point is Justin assumed the woman’s behavior was in response to his interracial relationship. So without further information could it be his own stereotypes interfering and making prejudgments? 

While studying in Rome, Britt-Gibson was informed that minorities were not treated as well as the Italians of Italians decent. Armed with this knowledge he attended a small club and was approached by a native Italian who asked if he liked, “Black Music.”

Britt-Gibson was at first taken aback by the question, he asked him what he meant by, “Black Music?”

The reply was far less aggressive than the manner in which Britt-Gibson received the question. When the man responded with music like Tupac and Snoop Dogg, he reassessed the situation and realized the man was only hoping to make a new hip-hop appreciating friend.

Justin acknowledges that there are still racial and cultural inequalities, but feels it has become a secondary concern in his lifetime. “I feel fortunate to live in an era when, in choosing friends or dates, race can be among the least of my concerns. Essentially, it’s no big deal.”

In my lifetime I have lived through great changes in what is socially acceptable in race, religions, nationalities, and sexual expression. We need to realize that we form stereotypes, or that generally we work within some type of parameters of stereotypes. But with stereotypes we have a great responsibility to personally recognize them and to decide whether we should adjust our behavior in light of that recognition.

I do not think we can rid ourselves of prejudging or stereotyping; however, we must continue to stay vigilant and to recognize when we stereotype and prejudge. We must ask ourselves, “Are we acting cognitively?”