Stereotypes: Definition And Why They Are Wrong

Updated February 13, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

People have a lot to say about stereotypes. Some loudly shout that they are wrong in all situations, other's argue that the stereotype would not exist if it were not true. Beyond the moral disagreement, stereotypes do affect our society, and they can cause a lot of damage. If you have trouble understanding exactly what a stereotype is, and how it could be bad, here is what you should know.

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A Stereotype Definition

What are the stereotypes? This question comes up often. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the concept as "an idea that is used to describe a particular type of person or thing, or a person or thing thought to represent such an idea." In plain English, it's taking an idea of something, usually a group of people, and generalizing the thought to everyone in that population. Some stereotype synonyms include "typecast" and "pigeonhole."

Movies, music, and television use the idea of stereotypes in their content all the time. Most sitcoms have the blundering father, the ditzy female character, or the cultural minority best friend. However, we can find stereotypes just about anywhere in our world today. Some stereotypes surround gender, race, appearance, age, and disability.

Think of the following sentences. What words would you use to fill in the blanks?

  • Blondes are ____.
  • Men just want _____.
  • Millennials are too ______.
  • Girls can't _______.
  • All Blacks/Latinos/Native Americans/Whites are

The words you chose to fill in the blanks are an example of the stereotypes you've either heard or believe true. You might think, "Hey! None of the words I chose to fill in the blanks are bad." But that's the funny thing about stereotypes. They do not have to be negative or rude to have an unwanted effect.

Positive Stereotypes

Positive stereotypes are common, and they sound like a compliment on the surface. Take the "positive" stereotype, "All Asians are smart!" At first glance, it sounds like praise. But if you look more closely, this stereotype can do a lot of damage.

Imagine you're a small child of Asian descent. You hear your whole life "All Asians are smart," but you know that does not feel like it's true for you. You have a hard time in school. Reading is difficult. Math is impossible. Everyone around you seems to pressure you because you are supposed to be "smart." Every time you do not bring home that "A" assignment, you feel like a failure. Like you alone missed out on the gene that makes "All Asians smart."

As educational opportunities like scholarships and colleges close their door on you, your future looks bleak. You have spent years trying to be the stereotypically smart Asian, instead of finding the talents that could have taken you to your version of success. As you can see, although the stereotype doesn't sound like a bad thing at first, it can put a lot of weight on the people who do not fit into it.

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Negative Stereotypes

Negative stereotypes are those we often think of when we hear the word "stereotype." They are usually used as insults or reasons for prejudice. A common negative stereotype is "All blonde women are dumb." This goes back to the Hollywood image of the helpless female, which is usually cast as a frail, fair-haired woman. The phrase already comes off as rude by nature of the descriptive word "dumb." However, just like the "All Asians are smart" example, the true damage of this stereotype goes a lot deeper.

Imagine you are a fresh-faced 21-year-old female. You have just graduated top of your class. You are also Caucasian and have very noticeable light blond hair. To begin your way in the professional world, you send out resumes, apply for internships, and network through social media. A prospective employer brings you in for an interview, but when you mention your bachelor's degree in engineering, the staff stifles a chuckle.

From the moment you entered the room, they already made up their mind about you. Sure, your background and experience look good on paper, but they believe that someone who is young, blonde, and attractive cannot possibly have the drive or smarts to make their way to the top. They write you off before you even get the chance to prove yourself.

It is situations like these, where either positive or negative stereotyping has an impact on the individual. Although the statement describes a group, it is individual people who are affected by the ideas. If you need more reasons why stereotyping is wrong, consider this:

They Divide

One of the most damaging effects of stereotyping is the divide that gets created among people because of it. By saying one group is smarter, more talented, or more attractive than another, it directly suggests that anyone who does not fit within that group is less smart, talented or attractive. This type of attitude can easily fuel jealousy, insecurity, and even depression in those who do not belong in the desirable group.

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They Create Fear

After the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States of America, Muslims living in the US experienced an increase in hate crimes and discrimination. Because the terrorists held extremist beliefs, it did not take long for people to develop a fear of Muslims or anyone from the Middle East.

Stereotypes like "All Muslims are terrorists," and "Muslims want to kill American's" made waves across the country. Although the Muslim-American community condemning the acts of terrorism, and proudly exclaiming their religion was one of love, the damage to the label of "terrorist" had already begun.

It wasn't too long before natural-born citizens of the United States who just happened to be Muslim were called terrorists. Innocent, hard-working, and loving people all over the country were feared, despite doing nothing wrong. Some were needlessly threatened, verbally attacked, and physically assaulted.

They Limit Opportunity

When one group is given special privileges or has opportunities taken away just because a certain belief spreads about them, it limits their social, educational, and career opportunities. For example, if a certain race is thought of as "lazy" or "uneducated," a potential employer is more likely to pass over someone's resume just by looking at their name, completely ignoring the qualifications they can bring to the role.

In 2015, the Huffington Post released an article exposing a sad truth. Children who had "Black" sounding names were labeled as "troublemakers" by teachers. They were already seen through a negative filter before they could prove themselves academically. Imagine trying to move up in the world when everyone else sees you far behind the starting line.

They Ignore Real Problems

The media would like us to believe that some groups of people, or in some cases, certain cultures or races, are more violent than others. While they rarely come right out and state this, their bias is seen in the types of stories they run.

The problem with this type of bias in the media is that it ignores real problems both within the racial, cultural, or social group they are reporting on, and outside of it. The news uses catchphrases like "white on black violence," "black on black violence," and "black on white" violence freely, without ever addressing the factors beyond race that increase rates of violence everywhere. While race is key in addressing problems in our society, boiling the entire problem down to one factor does not provide all the solutions we can take advantage of.

They Give Us Excuses

Last but not least, stereotypes do not just change what other people think of us. They can also change what we think of ourselves. If you constantly hear that because of your age, race, gender, or social status you must be something you are not, it creates emotional conflict.

Stereotypes are often based on things we cannot change easily, or cannot change at all. We fall victim to the stereotype we are given. Someone might not try out for a team or sport they love because they do not feel they "look right." Someone may not push themselves because they're convinced they aren't born with what it takes for success. Because of the thoughts and words of others, many people go through life living a less perfect version of their best self.

It is important to understand what stereotypes are and why they create problems in our world. Even if they do not sound bad, stereotypes can have negative consequences. If you have been the victim of a stereotype, it is important to acknowledge it can affect you emotionally.

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Speak to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp. Our trained mental health professionals can help you see who you are beyond what others think of you. Or, if you struggle with stereotyping others, we can give you tips to look beyond what you see. The world has over 7 billion people alive today. No two are the same. By being mindful of what stereotypes are and why they are harmful, you can do your part to give value to every person.


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