Are Stereotypes Necessary to Understand Our World?

by Melanie Edwards on March 16, 2012 · 7 comments

in life

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Cop Eating a Donut

Generalizations are necessary to understand the world we live in.”

The above statement was from a tweet I received the other day in response to my article about ¡Q’Viva! The Chosen. My article focused on how the show is highlighting Latinos in a positive way and I wrote that they’re sharing Latino culture on TV without the stereotypes. In response to my tweet about the article, someone wrote back that I should have specified “negative stereotypes” and then continued the tweet with the sentence above.

It took me a couple of times of reading the tweet to understand what she was saying. But, it took a bit longer for me to fully think about it, process it, and figure out how I truly felt about the statement. My initial reaction was “What? Stereotypes are inherently negative!” After thinking more about it and discussing with a friend, I realized that not all stereotypes are necessarily negative, though I still believe that the act of stereotyping is a negative thing. Did you get all that?

What I mean to say is that stereotypical statements such as, “Latinas are good dancers,” (to use an example my friend gave me) may not be negative in and of themselves since they are not saying anything bad about the group. This is not the same type of stereotype as saying “Puerto Ricans are drug dealers,” which is saying something negative about a group. However, the fact that a group is being generalized about in the first place is a negative thing. So, even saying that Latinas are good dancers is still a negative thing, in my opinion. Also, think of those poor Latinas who may not, in fact, be good dancers!

To address the second part of the tweet I received, which is the quote at the beginning of this post – why exactly are generalizations necessary? Are we not able to live without them? Must we have generalizations in order to get along with each other and coexist? I really don’t believe that.

We’ve become so accustomed to labels that perhaps it feels as if they’re necessary. But, are they really? I’m guilty of it myself and know that I feed into some stereotypes too. I’m not saying I’m without fault. But, I truly don’t believe that generalizations, or stereotypes, are necessary for our society.

I invite you to join this discussion and share your thoughts with me in the comments below. Are generalizations/stereotypes necessary to understand our world? Please keep it civilized and do not take this as an opportunity to bash others. I will be closely monitoring the discussion and will not allow any statements that are not necessary for the discussion.

Photo: David Childers/Flickr

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Latinaish March 16, 2012 at 11:47 am

I get what you’re saying and I agree. Stereotypes, even positive ones, can hurt people. If one says “all black people are good at sports” Well, that sounds like quite a compliment, but what about black people who aren’t athletic? This creates unfair expectations and I imagine this could cause some self-esteem issues for those who don’t live up to the false assumption.

As for needing stereotypes to make sense of our world… That’s more difficult to answer. It’s kind of hard to imagine a world without these kinds of generalizations since it’s such a part of human nature to want to put things into neat, easy to understand categories, (people and otherwise.)

This is really a question about human psychology, how we function and whether this is something we choose to do or are programmed to do. In the end, I don’t know how much of a choice we have in the matter. We can choose not to perpetuate stereotypes through what we say and what we do, but the thought process most likely is still going to happen.

Here’s an interesting article to check out:


Laura Tellado March 16, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I totally understand what you’re saying, but I specifically agree with you that even seemingly “positive” stereotypes can be negative, even harmful for self-esteem. Think about it. “Latinas are good dancers.” “Asian kids are geniuses.” Those may SEEM like harmless generalizations, but what if a Latina is in a wheelchair (although she still might be able to dance!) or just has 2 left feet? What if the Asian kid struggles just to maintain a C-minus average? Indeed, the “compliment” you give the Latina who can cha-cha could hurt the one born without rhythm, as she struggles to live up to societal expectations. 😉


Nikki @AsianBlackCo March 17, 2012 at 10:27 am

Interesting question.  Personally I don’t think stereotypes are needed to understand people and the wider range of community.  But they have become necessary since many people don’t know how to relate to a culture  different then their own.  Its a weird way of understanding someone else for some people. I think anyway


Chantilly Patiño March 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Really great topic. I totally agree with you…even a positive stereotype can become negative in our society. We generalize way to much. Chimamanda Adichie talks about this in her “single story” speech.

Someone may thing that a statement like “All Mexicans eat tacos” isn’t a big deal, but when my husband can’t even talk about food with people getting confused that tacos aren’t all he eats, that’s a problem.

Especially for minorities and anyone who doesn’t have a well-rounded story told about them or shown in the media…the FULL STORY. It’s sad how many people just don’t know and it’s downright abusive to hear people argue with my husband about what he’s “supposed” to like, “since he’s Mexican”.


Glenn Robinson March 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm

I agree with you Melanie. When people say that one group is good at something – that implies that other groups are not good at it. That’s the negative in the positive. 


Glenn Robinson March 18, 2012 at 5:04 pm

The double edged sword of sociology statistics and government statistics confirms the duality of this yin/yang phenomenon every day. Sociology and census statistics prove that certain groups average higher education and higher income while other groups average lower education and higher incarceration rates. I had thought that the gather of this data was racist – but I learned that without cold hard data – lawyers don’t have a leg to stand on when fighting for civil rights and social justice reforms.  


Vicky B., MSW March 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Definitely a good discussion topic!  As my academic life has been almost 100% psychology, I’m gonna agree with Latinaish, this is a question about human psychology.  

To that point, our first making sense of the world is by naming the things around us and then we group those things up and we can function because we know “some way” to handle said “thing”/”person”…

 It is human nature to want to belong- think about how we currently form our own “tribes” within “tribes”… In our society, we have an abundance of affinity groups (brought together by ethnic/racial identity, location, status, class, activities, significant experiences etc)- the thing is we need to belong, but belonging also assumes there is MY GROUP and there is NOT-MY-GROUP or Others.  Also can be seen as Insider/Outsider. 

For humans, there is a need to belong and know that we are safe in this belonging to a group.  Anyway from this place, we form what we know about ourselves and others and it helps us delineate these lines among groups.  This is why gang culture is prevalent (not about criminality at its core, but the basic need to belong, know who I am in relation to others, and to feel safe) and why healthy family culture is so important- this is where we first “belong”.  We can belong AND feel safe and STILL feel OTHERS (outside groups etc) are NOT a threat to us.  We can let go of negative stereotypes that are no longer necessary to draw lines between tribes, so to speak, but probably for  our own sanity we do need generalizations framed in appropriate contexts so that our brains can handle the information coming from the world.  And in fact, in academia, many of us our preoccupied with finding generalizations- what can we say about as many people as possible.

In day to day life, people use stereotypes because it is something recognizable.  We poke fun at our OWN groups and others (think “The Sh** People Say” youtube phenomena) in this way or they can be used AGAINST others to oppress, discriminate, and disrespect. Stereotypes work because it is clear what group is represented, for better or worse.

At the end of the day, when confronted with a negative stereotype, we need to speak up, share information (friends have shown their ignorance and even racist mentalities but were clueless- and by the way, we all have to recognize our own bigotry, racism, and self-hate to better serve others) and try to be better people one by one…


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