by Larry P. Johnson
Reprinted from “The San Antonio Express-News,” Aug. 12, 2017.
(Editor’s Note: Larry Johnson is an author and motivational speaker. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.mexicobytouch.com.)
We are more alike than we are different. But I am me and you are you.
Stereotyping is classifying or labeling people based on some set of common denominators — blond, redhead, black, white, brown, tall, short, fat, skinny, Democrat, Republican, smoker, non-smoker, baby boomer, millennial.
When we lump people together as a group, we ascribe certain characteristics, behaviors or attitudes to everyone in that group, often based on misinformation we have heard or read. Then we make judgments about them based on those misconceptions and generalizations, proceeding to treat everyone with that label as if they were all alike which, of course, they are not.
“Most Mexicans are in the U.S. illegally.”
“Most homeless people are homeless through their own fault.”
“Most Muslims are terrorists.”
“All women are sentimental, submissive and superstitious.”
“All men are adventurous, powerful and domineering.”
None of these statements are true.
Why do we feel the need to label or classify one another? Partly it is because we want to identify ourselves as belonging to a group. Human beings are social animals and feel the need to belong to a family, a community — the community of, say, Spurs fans, of vegetarians, or of licorice lovers. (That’s me, but black licorice only, please.)
So it’s about identity. It’s also about strength and power. If we are part of a group, it gives us a feeling of strength and power. We have numbers, we can impose our will. We can dominate. If there are enough of us who don’t like liver, maybe we can get the supermarket to ban the sale of liver. (OK, probably not.)
But the other thing about labels and stereotyping ourselves or others is that it causes us to discriminate, to push people away, to mistrust those who are not like us. We question their motives and sincerity. We resent their wanting the same things we want — a good job, a comfortable home, a safe environment for our children and grandchildren to grow up in. We see them as encroaching on our turf. They are not like us, we say. They don’t look like us, talk like us, worship like us. They don’t belong in our neighborhoods, parks, schools, or communities. But they do. They are, in fact, precisely what we need to add cultural flavor and social richness to our American melting pot.
We typically rely, for most of our information and knowledge, on secondhand sources. And the main source of this information is the mass media. Mass media can and do often play a major role in influencing and reinforcing our stereotypical thinking.
I remember when I was in Mexico some 40 years ago. Walking down the aisle in the supermarket, I counted three, maybe four kinds of breakfast cereal. Compare that to this country, where there is 20 times that number in the cereal aisle. It is so tremendously exciting, isn’t it? I don’t want us all to be cornflakes. How dull that would be. I appreciate and welcome diversity — both in food and in people.
And that’s how I see it.