But upon a bit of further thought, I’ve come to wonder if the whole “ism” thing is a bit reactionary. We’ve become so bogged down with the negatives associated with discrimination in our culture that we no longer dare admit that some of those stereotypes exist for a reason. And I’m not so sure that we can forget stereotypes entirely just so we don’t offend the sensibilities of the easy to offend individual. Take my husband for example. I married an Irish man. And I think you’d know it if you met him. Not just to look at him, but his easy going laid back manner that is so characteristic of the Irish (lol, well he was before he met me…), his propensity to drink spirits and his astonishingly hot temper when you finally push him to the end of his tether….
Now I use the word stereotype in italics deliberately – because to me a stereotype is borne from people in a definable group sharing a common characteristic. It doesn’t mean that everybody in that group shares the same characteristic, it just implies that a fair few of them do. So I cannot legitimately make a claim that all Irish men like a whisky or two,
(any teetotal Irish man could shoot down such an argument with one flick of his orange juice…) but I certainly can comment that my husband, is in general, typical of the Irish because he’s more than fond of his single malt.
And this kind of thinking can be seen in any “ism” today. We can’t assume all gay men listen to Kylie Minogue, all Indian people are hard working, all old people are uncomfortable with modern technology and no women can read a map. What we can be confident of is that enough people in each of these groups meet the criteria for this to become a commonly perceived trend.
The problems and the social issues with “isms” come when you take a general characteristic and apply it to an individual. “You must be xxx because you are yyy.” The insult behind racist/sexist/ageist behaviour is the assumption that the person is not an individual, that they are just behaving in a manner indicative of their “type.” The insult is the assumption, not the characteristic itself. And this seems to confuse a lot of people. The confusion comes in particular with positive assumptions. It is just as racist to say “All black people sing well,” as it is to say “No black people sing well.” To make either statement is to remove the concept of individuality from an individual and to reduce the individual to a stereotype of their race. The non racist way to behave is to treat the person on their own merits. Some people can sing, some can’t. The one thing you can guarantee is you can’t work it out by the colour of their skin. Try asking them to sing….
But the misconceptions of the “isms” works the other way too. We have started to become fearful of expressing comments about entire countries or communities in case somebody accuses us of racist behaviour. But if we agree that stereotypes exist for a reason then I don’t have a problem with expressing an opinion based on a common trait of an identifiable group of people. A statement like “The French eat horse,” isn’t racist. It’s a comment. Its true of a lot of French people. It probably isn’t true of some of them, but as a communal collective, the French do eat horse.
I personally dislike the fur trade in China, the bull fighting in Spain, the whole nuclear weapon hoohah in Korea and the attitude of the super healthy in California. But that doesn’t make me a racist. If I met a Spaniard, I wouldn’t accuse him of spending his evenings taunting the local bulls. I wouldn’t assume. (OK if he told me he was a bull murdering bastard, that’s a different story, I’d probably give him a good slap, but my point is that I would treat him exactly the same as I would anybody else. I would respect his right to be an individual and to have beliefs and personality traits that don’t fit into the stereotypical characteristics of his race.)
I do believe in stereotypes, some negative, some positive. I think some cultures have got things seriously wrong. Others are so alien to my own way of thinking that I can’t understand them at all. I’m happy to express a positive opinion (I personally find most Polish women attractive) or a negative opinion (Most old people walk so slowly they annoy me…) and I don’t consider myself bigoted for doing so. Because as long as I continue to treat everyone I meet as a blank slate and I’m willing to take them at face value as who they are without preconception, then I think I’m doing ok avoiding the “isms.” And my advice to you is to do the same. People are so much more than the stereotypes would allow you to believe.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1380778 (rojijaune)