“Guess which one of us lives in New York?”
This is a question I asked a group of friends last year, pre-pandemic, as we were chatting in my kitchen in Maryland. Everyone stopped to check out what people were wearing. Most of us were dressed in blue jeans and brightly colored t-shirts; I was wearing a red dress. Only one of us was in all black.
We all laughed, including my friend from New York, and went on with our conversation. But my friend had just been stereotyped. When a co-worker was heading to Boston for the first time, I said, “Be careful when you cross the street. Boston drivers are aggressive.” That’s also a stereotype.
Both stereotypes are based on truth, though. New Yorkers are more likely to wear black and dark colors than people in other American cities. A survey from Allstate Insurance that ranked drivers in the 200 largest metro areas of the U.S. placed Boston 199th, narrowly edged out of the bottom spot by a city just west of Beantown – Worcester.
I was thinking this week about stereotypes that are statistically accurate, like “Germans drink a lot of beer” (they drink 99 liters per capita every year, still far behind the Czech Republic where they guzzle nearly 190 liters per capita annually), or that British people talk about the weather a LOT.
If you’ve spent any time studying statistics, you know they can be both very helpful and quite misleading. In order to determine how much beer Germans consume, statisticians take the total amount of yeasty brew drunk every year and divide it by the number of adults in the country. That includes both the people who drink far more than a pint a day and those who are teetotalers. Knowing that, on average, Germans drink a lot of beer doesn’t help you determine if a specific person from Germany drinks ale or doesn’t.
Obviously, there are plenty of New Yorkers who dress in bright colors; there are drivers in Boston who are cautious; there are British folks who don’t talk about the weather. It’s important to keep in mind the limitations of statistics and probabilities whenever you are talking about racism and bias. In the study of logic, a stereotype is a fallacy in which we believe an entire group has a particular characteristic and so assume that an individual member of that group also has that quality.
For example, research from Pew and other organizations shows that Latinx people are more religious than most other Americans: 59% say they are absolutely certain that God exists. That data is useful for demographic study, but not helpful at all in personal relationships. Before you assume that someone is religious, it’s best to ask and not rely on either the probability chart or the stereotype.
I’m currently reading Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and at one point, the authors briefly describe the origins of the word stereotype. That led me to this piece from Merriam-Webster on the history of the word. The term wasn’t used to describe assumptions we make about others until the 20th century. Originally, the word “stereotype” was used to describe a shortcut in the printing process.
Gutenberg’s press was nothing short of revolutionary when he invented it in the mid-15th century, but it wasn’t particularly fast. Typesetters had to place every letter, every punctuation mark, every line onto the press individually (and backward in mirror image), then smear the metal plates with ink and press a fresh sheet of paper on top. The average worker could produce about 250 pages an hour. Only one copy could be made at a time, and if the original metal plates began to wear down, as they did after hundreds or even thousands of runs, a typesetter had to create an entirely new set of plates using the same painstaking process.
Enter the stereotype. By the 1780s, printers had learned that they need only set the type once. From that original, they would create a mold out of clay or papier-mâché which could be used to cast a stereotype from hot metal. The stereotype was durable, and printers could produce multiple casts from a single mold, so that several copies of the same newspaper or book could be printed simultaneously.
Essentially, instead of using flexible type that could be altered, printers were fabricating a mold in order to churn out exact replicas thousands of times.
Now, zip forward on the timeline a few hundred more years, as the New York political commentator Walter Lippmann completed a book called Public Opinion in which he sought to analyze the human tendency to categorize and classify things and even people. “For the most part,” he wrote, “we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”
And there it is! Lippmann plucked a word meant to describe an immovable, inflexible mold and used it to refer, in his words, to a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.” Lippmann was writing about the ways in which we all delude and deceive ourselves, how perception can skew reality and prevent us from seeing the truth. “We are told about the world before we see it,” he wrote, “We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”
It’s one thing, in other words, to talk about tendencies and probabilities, and quite another to apply those qualities to actual people. A lot of people in Boston drive aggressively, but not all. People in the U.K. may tend, in general, to talk about the weather, but individuals there may not.
Some stereotypes are benign (I can’t imagine what harm is caused by saying that New Yorkers like to wear black) and some aren’t. Some stereotypes lead to assumptions about a job applicant’s work ethic or a neighbor’s propensity to commit crime. Some stereotypes are dangerous and cruel.
Like it or not, your mind will take shortcuts whenever possible. Approaching every doorknob as though it’s the first you’ve seen would eat up an inordinate period of time. It’s necessary that we all make assumptions based on prior experience and it’s helpful to get advice from others before we encounter things for the first time (e.g., “Denver is cold at night. Bring a jacket.”). But it’s crucial that we set human beings aside in their own special category, a “no-shortcuts, no assumptions” category.
Every human being you meet should be seen and heard as though they are the first one you’ve ever met because they are. Every individual is different and unique, and your assumptions will fall apart in the face of their singularity. Each time you meet another person, you have been gifted with an opportunity to learn who they are, what they enjoy, what kind of adventures they’ve had. Your questions should always outnumber your expectations.
After all, many stereotypes are not based on statistical probabilities or data, but on myth. And as Walter Lippman wrote nearly 100 years ago, “What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion.”
By the way, I’ve used that joke about New Yorkers and black just one other time. I met a woman at a book signing event who was dressed in charcoal grey and dusky black from head to toe. “You must be from Manhattan,” I said. She looked confused. “No, I’m from Boise. Why do you ask?”
Beware the stereotype.