I find stereotypes intriguing. I am particularly interested in the popular negative stereotype of stereotypes. We were all taught in elementary school not to judge people by stereotypes. Yet we need stereotypes to organize our world. We need categories to help us understand who we are in relation to others, and to what groups we do and don’t belong. We can’t possibly know everything about everyone. Sometimes all we need to know is one characteristic.
If you ask someone to describe any group of people, you will get a stereotype. It may be negative or positive or neutral, but it is a stereotype. Not everyone in that group will fit that description, but many will. It may be based on experience or rumor. It may reveal ignorance or sophistication. It gives us some general information about people we don’t know as individuals. The harm usually arises when that stereotype becomes more salient than the individuals it represents.
I am a young man, in my early twenties; this alone places me into a stereotype in the wider community and often casts me into suspicion. Assumptions are made about my level of responsibility and maturity. Yet I am older than many traditional college students. I have experience in the workplace and the world. I do not easily fit into groups of younger students nor groups of people my age who are out of school.
A strive to be a Christian. While many Christian traditions are cultural norms in this country, faithful Christian beliefs and practices are not. This is particularly true among most young adults, to whom religion seems repressive, boring or, at best, irrelevant. I often find myself a token of curiosity. People seem fascinated that what seems so distant to their lives is so central to mine. Even in church settings I am isolated not by my faith
but by my age. I am either too young or too religious to fit in either community.
I am also gay. This of course is the most stigmatizing of my characteristics. We still live in a world where the way I express love is equated with evil, the response to which is often hate and violence. Much of that hate is still fueled by religious leaders and tradition. Again, the wider society and other Christians view me with suspicion, but so does the gay community. I practice a religion that has been used to oppress homosexuals for centuries. I am too Christian or too gay to fit into either community.
I can be, and often am, classified by any one of these features of my identity. I fit into any number of other groups, categories, and stereotypes. But you cannot know me through classification. I am the only one who has my exact combination of these attributes. I am unique. You can choose to know me, or classify me; but it is difficult to do both.
What we learned in school was true. Rather than judge people by our narrow categories, we should seek to know people in their own distinctiveness. We can’t eliminate stereotypes, but by allowing individuals to expand our understanding of the groups to which they belong, such categories may become more useful. Broader definitions may increase our understanding of ourselves and others in the world.