On the ontological status of stereotypes

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.

7 thoughts on “On the ontological status of stereotypes

  1. sorry to smuggle my own concerns in here, but I was just reading Zizek’s ‘Violence’ and have been grappling with an argument he makes about racism and this post synced up in an interesting way to that. He writes, “To relativise their inferiority into a matter of interpretation and judgment by white racists, and distance it from a question of their very being [misses] the truly trenchant dimension of racism: the “being” of blacks (as of whites or anyone else) is a socio-symbolic being. When they are treated by whites as inferior, this does indeed make them inferior at the level of their socio-symbolic identity. In other words, the white racist ideology exerts a performative efficiency” [73].

    Here Zizek resists a stark ontological-ontic divide (‘they aren’t really that way, the racists just interpret them that way’) and he thus opposes those who might say that one can be internally/ontologically unaffected by the portrait that socio-political discourse paints of one’s identity.

    And I think your emphasis on the role infrastructure plays in forcing these stereotypes onto the identity of the stereotyped is right on the money, because the performative role of the symbolic can only inscribe itself on the being of the marginalized if it is believed (symbolic discourse depends on a belief in some grounding irrational master-signifier impervious to critical examination). And what is irrationally taken to be the way things are more than the identity of neighbourhoods (despite their constant transformations)?

  2. I can see it works for food (cheap food is eaten by poor people, etc.), but say, booze and the Irish, stinginess and the Scots, financial acumen and the Jews, Asian maths whizzes, how can these be ‘performed’ by the dominant or be placed in physical terrain?

  3. There’s actually some interesting work on cognitive science and unconscious racist beliefs. Armour’s “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism” is particularly good, more from the critical legal studies field. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but he mentions some interesting cog-sci studies in which ambiguous black figures in a simulation are consistently interpreted to be threatening or assaulting the viewer opposed to identical white figures. The whole thing leads into a really interesting discussion of unconscious racism and what it means for equality before the law.

  4. Gabe, I picked the easiest example, of course, but I’m sure you could do similar analyses with other stereotypes. And I don’t mean to imply that racism is primarily a geographical thing, though the very layout of our cities is perhaps one of the most dramatic instances of racism coming out in our practices.

    Grant, I don’t want to deny that individuals “have” unconscious racist beliefs — clearly many do, probably including me. I just want to displace the question from individuals, because it really doesn’t seem to me that individual racist beliefs are really the territory where this battle is best fought (and on the practical level, talking about individual racist beliefs is a non-starter, because everyone then just gets self-defensive, because of course it’s a matter of proving that I individually am not a racist, etc.).

  5. Adam, you’re probably/definitely right about that. (I wanted to say definitely, but my legal education is turning me into a wrist flapping, non-committal approximator.)

    The interesting question is, then, particularly if you’re trying to implement a progressive vision of equality, is what role policing the thought or acts of individuals can or should play in combating what really seems to be more of an embodied social practice. These sorts of conversations come up all the time in legal discourse, for instance, in assault or police brutality cases, which tend to hinge on the defendant’s subjective feelings of safety or reasonable apprehension of assault.

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