On my first day in a Russian class, I asked my professor if she knew how to assemble and disassemble an AK-47 in a matter of seconds. Not only did she not know how to do that, but she sighed and made a comment about not taking what one sees out of context when I explained that I made the assumption based on seeing a YouTube video and therefore assuming that AK-47s were a standard part of Russian education. Upon reading the description, I read that the activity was part of something called the Patriot Competition that involved competing in military-related activities.
Understandably, she was confused, because most college professors don’t get asked if they know how to assemble a gun, much less a specific type of gun. I don’t know if the US has anything like the Patriot Competition, but I realized my mistake immediately. I made an incorrect generalization based on something I saw out of context. I may have come from a school so white that we should have received funding for free sunscreen (not that some wealthy parent couldn’t have donated to the cause), but I didn’t exactly grow up under a rock. I know about stereotypes and how they affect people, but I don’t think consciously trying to defy stereotypes or pretending they don’t exist will be the way to solve the problems they cause.
Stereotypes always have some truth value. The extent of that truth value (truth in a statement that doesn’t necessarily validate the statement) varies by the individual stereotype, but they always have some truth value. However, with that truth value comes a context and that context usually goes ignored both in stereotyping itself and in discussions of stereotyping. For example, if I thought that all Muslims are terrorists, that would ignore the fact that nearly every religion that ever existed has (or had, in the case of extinct religions) violent radical groups.
Stereotypes mostly come about as a result of partial misinformation and sloppy thinking. The key word here is “partial”. It is much easier to deceive or misinform someone by luring them in with something that they know to be true than it is to get them to believe something that it is wholly untrue. While some stereotypes are relatively harmless or too farfetched to really affect anyone, others can open a can of worms for the stereotyped group should someone overlook the context of the stereotype. In combatting the lack of context, the stereotype will no longer be able to hold water in a variety of incorrect contexts.
Let’s get back to my first-semester Russian professor. What did you expect her to look like? You probably expected her to be a babushka or a Bond girl. Though she was fairly attractive and well-dressed, she didn’t fit either mold. She dressed a bit nicer than other professors I’ve had, but nothing I’d see on the runway. Did you expect her to be pro-Putin or anti-Putin? She was staunchly anti-Putin and, if you know what he’s doing to Russia, you can see why. She probably left Russia to go to America because she was adversely affected by Putin’s policies.
Was my stereotyping a sign that I hated her or Russians? No. However, stereotypes and hate go hand in hand because both are the product of poor reasoning. Generally, people hate others because they see the ‘others’ as a threat to their survival or as subhuman. Think back to the gay marriage controversy when opponents argued that gay marriage would destroy the fabric of civilization and morality. Gay marriage threatened what these people knew and thus sought to protect the social structure that they saw as an aid to their survival. How did people like me overcome that way of thinking? They met LGBT people, did research on the Bible and LGBT issues, examined their own views on sexuality as a whole, and some even came out of the closet themselves. What changed? Their thinking changed and thus, the fear that gave the basis for the hatred no longer had any foothold on their thinking.
I don’t think stereotypes can ever be eradicated because generalization is a part of human nature, but I think the use of stereotypes to propagate hatred will be diminished if more people understood the context behind the stereotype. Moreover, learning to laugh at the stereotypes allows someone to laugh at themselves and thus go through life with a sense of humor. Humor dissolves tension and humor, rather than raging against the stereotype, is what unites us all as human.