OPINION | Positive stereotypes are as toxic as negative ones

Doxey Kamara, Intersections Editor

Good intentions do not always yield good results. Sometimes, a well-meaning statement is more of a backhanded compliment. An implication that someone is pretty despite their Blackness, or smart because they are Asian, sounds innocent until one actually analyzes the statement. It is not a compliment for the individual so much as a statement about the group they belong to.

Outside of conversation, these benevolent stereotypes are also seen in some entertainment. Stories rely on familiarity, and no story exists in a vacuum. This means that American stereotypes — like Romani people being mysterious magicians, or Black people being skilled athletes — appear in the media that we consume. What makes these tropes so difficult to discuss is that some might consider them compliments.

The Scary Black Man is clearly a negative racial stereotype, for instance, but what about the genius Asian or romantic Latino? Is there something wrong with the lovable Black character who always speaks in slang? Where is the harm in something that is not meant to be derogatory?

The issue here lies in the fact that, like any other stereotype, these depictions encourage profiling an entire group of people in a certain way. They encourage imagining the Native American or African person as a noble savage, for instance. For the many Americans who have not interacted with an African person, or never met a Native American, such stereotypes may be the only exposure they have had to these groups. If one’s idea of a group comes only from entertainment, it is easy to consider said group a monolith.

Not only does such media encourage such thinking, it also influences self-perception among people in the depicted groups. A stereotype, just like any other social expectation, can be internalized. With negative stereotypes, one might work harder to separate themselves from being profiled as lazy or unintelligent. With positive ones, some might try to live up to the expectations they feel have been set for them.

In either case, both in-groups and out-groups can be negatively affected by stereotyping, particularly in entertainment media. While interacting with members of such groups helps one overcome the prejudices that this media may have instilled, it is not something that people always set out to do. It may not be feasible or even desirable for one to seek out a member of an often-profiled group, and said members have no obligation to dispel any myths about their culture or personalities.

In light of that, it may seem unrealistic to expect consumers to separate fiction from reality. Limited exposure results in limited understanding. However, there are tropes in entertainment that are very clearly unrealistic. A good example of this is the idea that men do not cry. Even in the face of trauma or intense despair, a male character — especially an action hero — will shed a single tear and then get back to work. In real life, people often expect males to “man up” and overcome whatever negative emotions they’re experiencing.

Despite the prevalence of the idea, both in real life and entertainment, many people also understand that such an expectation is unrealistic and unhealthy. The idea is being reckoned with both on individual levels and wide-reaching campaigns. In the same way that society is shifting away from toxic definitions of masculinity, it is time to shift away from toxic depictions of minorities — even if they do not seem derogatory.

No one can force an individual to change their preconceived notions about a race, sex or ethnicity, but we can nudge them into a healthier direction.