Tips for Confronting Stereotypes

Though the English name has changed, the Chinese name is still clearly “Black Person” toothpaste. I also found some “White Person” toothpaste in Taiwan recently, which I bought. I also almost bought 4 toothbrushes but my Taiwanese friend asked me, “how many mouths do you have!?”

What I dislike most about stereotypes, is that they are prejudgments. Assumptions about a person’s character based not on factual evidence, but on perceived qualities of certain groups. I’ve noticed 2 levels of stereotyping. First is assuming a person belongs to a certain group, (such as assuming a white person must definitely be an English speaker, an American, a cowboy etc.) and then assuming characteristics about a person based on their perceived or real association with some group. (such as a black person has bright white teeth, or a white guy is a “guardian of tooth.”)

If you genuinely wish to confront the stereotypes in other people, you first should confront them in yourself. At least try. I at least admit most of my stereotyped ideas are generalizations and obviously wouldn’t apply to every person. To me, that is a given that should go without saying. But I constantly need to say it, in fact emphasize it. My perceived generalizations of any group never prevent me from judging people as individuals, not as members of those groups.

To me it’s obvious that I don’t believe all Japanese people are cold and unfriendly if I say that’s my general impression. Most of my closest friends are Japanese. It is a “stereotype” of mine but I don’t let it interfere with my interactions with people in Japan. Except one time, I tried to casually explain that impression to a Japanese girl at my university, and instead of engaging in an interesting conversation about it, she just refused to talk to me again. Yeah, that’s another stereotype of Japanese people. Always avoiding any perception of negativity whether it is based in reality or not. Though I do have some great Japanese friends I can talk about anything with, including my positive and negative perceptions of Japanese culture and behavior.

So how do you judge a person’s behavior without considering how that behavior is motivated by being a member of a particular group? Also, is it acceptable to openly discuss stereotypes? Can’t we generalize without hurting anyone? And leave room for customizing those perceptions and treat each person we meet as an individual?

Should all stereotypical ideas be immediately forbidden so that we can cultivate a human society where we are completely considerate of the fact that each person is an individual? Wouldn’t that be switching from extreme ignorance to extreme hyper-logical consideration? Directly, viciously attacking stereotypes we encounter is also detrimental to our psychological health.

“If you setout every day on a cultural crusade, vowing to confront and destroy the stereotype of a foreigner (gaijin), then your life will soon stop being fun. Either for you or people around you.” – Mario McKenna, Coping with Problems Caused by Stereotypes in Japan

McKenna also says that, “If you try to do it (crusading against stereotypes) all by yourself, the end result will be you standing alone reinforcing more stereotypes than you destroy.”
A more indirect approach or indifferent attitude may thus save your sanity. When confronted with stereotypes, I either ignore them, or playfully make fun of them. Such as asking my Japanese acquaintance if they can use a fork and acting surprised when they confirm they can as a response to asking if I can use chopsticks. I do it playfully, we have a good laugh, and everyone realizes simple assumptions like that are just silly.
Being able to directly confront stereotypes with facts and examples that completely prove them false might logically seem effective, and potentially can be. If someone you care about is being stereotyped then point out their individuality and how they can’t be pigeonholed into that easily accepted idea of whatever prejudice they are the victim of. However, I prefer to show rather than tell. I demonstrate exceptions to stereotypical assumption and hope the stereotyper makes the logical conclusion without me saying, “LOOK! LOOK! You were wrong!”
Though if it is not a situation where you can comfortably ignore or playfully ridicule the stereotype, then distance yourself from the problem as best as you can. Relax, and focus on the positive things in your life. Become the best at something, and become the best version of yourself you can imagine. Be confident in yourself and petty notions like the illogical assumptions of others need never concern you.

According to Joseph Devito, of The Communication Blog, “Stereotyping can lead to two major barriers. First, the tendency to respond to a person primarily as a member of a (national, racial, religious) class can lead you to perceive that person as possessing qualities (usually negative) that you believe characterize the group to which he or she belongs. Second, stereotyping can lead you to ignore the unique characteristics of an individual; you therefore may fail to benefit from the special contributions each person can bring to an encounter.
You’re not going to lose your stereotypes. But, you can become mindful of them and, when appropriate, ask yourself if your perceptions of another person are being unduly influenced by your stereotypes.”

I’ve been the victim of both those barriers. Perhaps we all are at times. So how do we convince or motivate people to see each other as individuals and not primarily as a member of an ethnicity or nation?