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Commentary: Self-fulfilling stereotypes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2009 - Do you notice that when a person of color does something wrong, it is often generalized to an entire group? However, when a person of color does something well, he or she is considered an exception or presented as raceless.

We don’t make those same cognitive errors when it comes to whites. A white man kills a family, and we don’t say, “Those people are so violent. We should just let them kill each other off.” Yet those comments are often seen on blogs and comment sections of articles about people of color committing a violent act. This process is called a self-fulfilling stereotype.

If our belief about a group of people is upheld, then our stereotypes about them are strengthened. However the difficult conundrum is that it is easier for us to see what we expect to see. So, if we believe African Americans are inherently violent people who commit horrible acts, when we see our “proof” we feel justified in making claims that bolster our beliefs. We are less likely to notice the numerous examples of African Americans not committing violent acts let alone note the number of violent acts perpetrated by other races.

Research documents the over-representation of stories linking people of color and crime. I don’t think that this link is always purposeful. Sometimes it’s the self-fulfilling stereotype of the reporter or editor influencing the story choices and what gets highlighted.

For instance, there is the classic Katrina example of two pictures of people wading in the water with supplies from a nearby store. The differences between the pictures were the race of the subjects and the captions. In the picture with people of color, the subjects were “looting.” In the picture with whites, the people had “found food.” Enough people noticed the discrepancy that the pictures were quickly taken offline, but the story remains relevant.

Someone who reads this article will likely say, “You’re simply making excuses for unacceptable behavior. When will you stop turning a blind eye to the problems in the ____ community.” But in no way am I making excuses for such behavior. Violence is a problem that needs to be addressed. I am focused on how we often misperceive groups of people in biased ways.

Let’s look at the dynamic from a less provocative angle.

Where do you think blonde jokes came from? There is a stereotype. If you believe blondes are inherently dumb, then when your blonde coworker makes a mistake you attribute it to her blondeness and that strengthens your belief. However, you don’t notice or point out the hair color of the brunette who makes the same mistake.

Some will claim, “Well if there’s a stereotype, then it must have come from some kernel of truth.” I disagree. It perhaps came from people who had the power to influence messages (e.g. media imagery) holding a particular belief. We are subject to the lens of those who have the power to affect what we see and hear. Yet over time, it simply seems as though it’s the way things have always been, therefore, it is the correct belief.

I felt compelled to write about this phenomenon after reading one too many flagrant comments on blogs and new websites. I’m all for people having the right to an opinion. But I also think we need to be critical readers and realize the biases that can color the way we see the world.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.