Where “are” stereotypes? We all recognize certain stereotypes as real stereotypes (perhaps African-Americans’ love of fried chicken or the poor driving skills of Asians) and reject others as simply made up (such as African-Americans’ fear of ceiling fans or the fact that every Asian man can do like a thousand push-ups) — even though we simultaneously believe that stereotypes are themselves untrue.
What’s more, very few people will admit to holding a stereotype, though they recognize them when they hear them. Indeed, when pressed even people who seem to be hardened racists will most often admit that of course not all black people are like that, etc. — calling into question whether racists, as stereotype-believers par excellence, really “believe” in stereotypes in some straightforward way. And even if we imagine that some people believe certain stereotypes to be at least grounded in truth — and indeed, it may be difficult to tell a stereotype from a genuine cultural difference — it is difficult to imagine that there is anyone out there who believes all of them, especially since they are so often contradictory (such as stereotypes of Mexicans as both lazy and absolutely desperate to work).
If no one (or almost no one, or no one who counts) believe in stereotypes, if they aren’t beliefs in a critical mass of heads, then where are they? Some might claim that they are in those heads, but as unconscious beliefs — but where else does the unconscious manifest itself but in what we do? That, I suggest, is where stereotypes abide, or at least the broader images that the stereotypes point toward.
For instance, one might say that the idea that black people like fried chicken — a food that surely every meat-eater enjoys, just as I know very few people of any race who don’t like watermelon — points toward the idea that black people just naturally enjoy cheaper food (not beef, but chicken; not fruit juice, but Kool-Aid) and therefore that the dominance of fast food outlets and convenience stores (rather than good restaurants and grocery stores) in black neighborhoods simply reflects the way black people are and is therefore “okay” — and so you don’t see the mayor of Chicago trying to get more grocery stores into black neighborhoods, for instance.
The dominance of cheap, unhealthy food in black neighborhoods is where all the stereotypes about black food and drink preferences “are.” And one could perform this exercise for all kinds of stereotypes that of course no one “believes” — we don’t have to believe them, because the very physical terrain of our society believes them for us. Where we go and what we do every day believes them for us.