A challenging question was raised by Steve in class last night: What’s the difference between a cultural characteristic and stereotypical one? This definition from “Culture, Identity, and Schooling” p. 49, offers some insight:
Stereotype – A fixed notion of the characteristics of members of a particular group, without regard for individual differences (emphasis mine).
In our first two classes (dedicated to cultural introspection and identity examination) we emphasized the importance of knowing—and respecting—students as unique individuals, who are members of particular groups (categories: language, ethnicity, race, gender, etc.; see Banks’ multiple group membership paradigm, in class presentations) but do not subscribe to all group characteristics. Stereotypes assume that individual members of a particular group take on all group attributes. We’ve learned that this is inaccurate; group culture is dynamic and identity constantly refined/renegotiated.
As Stacey shared, stereotypical traits are often exaggerated and frequently negative. However, positive stereotypes are also problematic. The guide quoted above provides a thoughtful explanation, pp. 114–115:
Some instances of unwitting racism are founded on positive stereotypes. For example, Asian Americans have frequently been touted as the “model minority” (Kim & Yeh, 2002). This is because, as a group, Asian Americans have not experienced the widespread school failure commonly observed among Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Americans Indians. One explanation for this general pattern is that they have been willing immigrants to
the United States. However, there are two serious problems with casting Asian Americans as the model minority. First, the stereotype itself is disturbing because, like all stereotypes, it perpetuates ignorance and gets in the way of learning about individuals and their families (Kim & Yeh, 2002). Second, it can mean overlooking the needs of Asian American students. There is great variability in how Asian American students fare in U.S. schools. Collapsing data on Asians as a group, rather than looking at patterns among Chinese American, Hmong American, Bangladeshi American, Vietnamese American, Korean American, and Asian Indian American students, masks different kinds of needs students may have and can lead to the justification of current practices that are not effective (Gewertz, 2004). Issues that some cite as under addressed vis-à-vis Asian students from many groups are harassment and racial discrimination in schools (Gewertz, 2004; Kohatsu et al., 2000, cited in Kim & Yeh, 2002), and lack of attention to devising ways to involve Asian parents in the schools, given that many are working more than one job and that language barriers and lack of knowledge about schools may keep them away (Gewertz, 2004).
Whereas ethnic stereotyping is a negative phenomenon, it should be distinguished from racism in the sense that it does not always entail the power differential that racism does. For example, when U.S. visitors to Germany expect efficiency and cleanliness, it may mean that they do not see the complexity and variation in German life. However, it is not likely to have the same negative impact that overt, racist beliefs and actions do. Stereotypes are an unfortunate extension of useful generalizations that may help people begin to understand other cultures.
For a light read on how/why we stereotype, and what we can do about it, see this Psychology Today article.
For a more education-oriented read on stereotype threat and how teachers can minimize its effect, see this ASCD article by Joshua Aronson, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at New York University.