Friday, 9 December 2022

Excursus #9. The Impact of Stereotypes.

Since July, some texts of mine have been exhibited at the Caricature Museum Krems. Excursus #9 is on stereotypes, othering, and the role of (de)sexualisation of Black and Asian men and women. Here is the general part - printed in the museum's catalogue - on the impact of stereotypes, translated into English by Susanne Watzek.

Stereotypes do not emerge in a vacuum, in complete detachment from society and its structures, developments, the zeitgeist and the asymmetries of power. Time and place have an effect. Stereotypes define the representations that can, should or must be created in order to legitimise or uphold a certain state of affairs. One thing is certain: they are anything but disinterested; often designed to put the blame on the “other”, stereotypes thus reflexively lift any blame from one’s own shoulders and the collective one feels affiliated to. The “others” are a threat, aren’t they, which means that an attack is really nothing but defensive action. If the “other” is a seductress, having sex with her is a mere reaction. It turns out that these projections often tell us more about the creators of a stereotype than about those it is directed at. 

In most cases, stereotypes are negatively connoted, undifferentiated and simplistic attributions that define the level of popularity and status, stigmatise , create distance, construe identities and reinforce or redefine one’s own identity in strict delineation from that of the other. They are reductionist systems of orientation and structure, indispensable for othering and narratives in support thereof; they create categories in which to pigeonhole others and justify or exacerbate marginalisation and dominance, prescribing an assigned place for each and every human being. Stereotypes construe otherness and norms, defining affiliation and non-affiliation. While simplification does not do justice to human three-dimensionality, it makes the world more manageable and easier to grasp; over there the marginal groups in one big homogeneous mass, over here one’s own groups with all their many-hued facets. The defining element in all this: that which we do not have in common. 

Empirical findings are unambiguous and there is consensus among researchers that stereotypes distort perception, memory and patterns of explanation. A tendency towards selective perception has been observed: people see what fits their patterns and adhere to these patterns very rigidly, at the same time exhibiting all the more flexibility when it comes to defending them. Whatever does not fit the pattern is turned into a subcategory with deviating features and labelled an “exception to the rule”. People are resourceful in this exercise and stereotypes become pliable. In this way, the former do not have to rethink anything and the latter can be upheld. All is well.

Stereotyped knowledge becomes common knowledge that is acquired, handed down and perpetuated everywhere, in school, in the family, in the media and at the workplace. The images thus become common biases, mindsets and cultural resources. As a seminal part of socialisation these images have the power to shape not only how one sees others, but also how these others see themselves. Again, numerous studies have provided ample evidence that even a subtle activation of stereotypes has an impact on self-esteem, self-assessment and an individual’s level of performance. There comes a point when the messages suggesting that you are too much a woman, too Black, too old, are internalised and the stereotype takes effect, restraining, constricting and threatening. It curbs your radius of action and you act in line with the low expectations. When gender stereotypes are activated, the performance in mathematics or football deteriorates. Handwriting turns into a scrawl and gait becomes slow when age is made an issue, and the performance of African Americans in cognitive tests deteriorates—even in children - when skin colour is brought into play. These are only a few examples, but stereotypes are rarely harmless. (Moazedi, 2022)

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photograph by Chen Man via