An Age-Old Problem

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Q&A by Amanda Hayes

“Some of my best friends are black.”

“I know all about Asian culture from going to Asian Fest every year.”

“Mexicans only hang out with each other. It’s like a clan.”

In an age obsessed with political correctness and diversity, these far-fetched comments are just a few examples of people’s attempts to justify their tendency to stereotype. Baylor sociology professor Dr. Jerry Park addresses these misguided attempts to bridge the gap of racial groups, and suggests more practical steps that can be taken to combat stereotypes. He breaks it down into three efforts: education, relationship and self-reflection. Park is an affiliate fellow for the Institute for Studies on Religion, co-adviser to the Asian Student Association, and conducts research on Asian-American stereotypes.

In a TED Talk, “Why do we create stereotypes,” psychologist Dr. Bloom argues that stereotypes are a natural human tendency. How do you respond to Dr. Bloom’s ideas?

I don’t disagree with Dr. Bloom. I would agree that it’s probably a very deeply ingrained subconscious kind of reaction to stereotype. It’s probably a product of thousands and thousands of years of hunter-gatherers who were basically always looking out for possible enemies and threats to their community. This impulse to say, “That out-group over there is threatening to me,” winds up attaching itself to all kinds of images which form the stereotypes that we have today. As Bloom pointed out, the big challenge we have is we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore. We’re not living in 5000 BC. So, in 2015 CE, what exactly does that mean? What should we do with the stereotypes that continually haunt us and inhabit our thinking? Part of it is simply education. We want to learn about the reality that we have these very impulsive tendencies to stereotype and group people and push them away.

How can education specifically be used as a tool to bring about equality?

What we need to do, and I think this is the job of educators, is we want to encourage more folks to be aware of social inequalities that are tied to race. Sometimes that has nothing to do with

Dr. Jerry Park
Dr. Jerry Park. Photo by Sarah Forsman

culture. There are deeply set-in biases that are informing very important people at the local level that wind up having systemic effects on people based on their skin color…

To what extent are police officers more likely, not always but more likely, to use lethal force simply because of their impulsive stereotypes of black people? So there’s been so much talk of unarmed African American men who pose no threat to law enforcement, and nevertheless they still took lethal force and killed a number of these people. Doesn’t mean white people are never shot at, they’re also targeted sometimes, but what they’re talking about is the disproportion.

This is all driven together as systemic forms of racism, all built off of stereotypes. Simply knowing about one of the dominant subcultures of African American life doesn’t necessarily make you more sensitive to all of these ways that systemic racism is affecting the lives of many African Americans.

What’s the difference between prejudice and stereotyping?

I tell students that stereotyping is the mental image, and prejudice is the collection of attitudes you might have. In the image-centered, media-saturated culture we’re in today, stereotypes are like pictures. Prejudicial attitudes are reflections of what you think of that person based on that image. Do they work hard? Do they make the right choices? Do they convey likeability? Those are your prejudices, and that’s attached to whatever images you may have based on that person’s skin color.

What are some specific ways in which an education at Baylor helps students to be more culturally aware?

Right now the faculty is having a discussion of recruiting a chief diversity officer. That officer could implement shifts in the curriculum. As far as I know, the class I teach in Race and Ethnicity is one of the only classes like it in the entire curriculum. So, 35-40 students each semester out of several thousand have any awareness of racial inequality and how it works in contemporary American society. So a chief diversity officer could initiate curricular change where in your first two years you take a diversity required course, and give a few options. That would be one way to do something more systematic.

In Waco and Baylor communities in particular, are there any major stereotypes?

Time and time again I find that African American students are still facing the same stereotypes that they are students recruited as a result of affirmative action, that they are likely here on student athlete scholarship, even though the vast majority are not. They came in on their own merits. It had nothing to do with affirmative action. Latino students are often perceived as either immigrants or children of immigrants, I think the catch phrase there would be “foreigners.” So, basically, you’re not really an American, even though so many of them can easily trace three generations in the United States, minimum. But because their skin is darker from the dominant group, they are somehow seen as foreign.

For Asian students, they also get the foreigner stereotype attached to them, or the “model minority” stereotype. This perception that they’re really good at math and science, so they create problems for others because they’re busting the curve. Non-Asians, especially white students, often perceive that Asians cluster in groups. But the reality is, there’s a little bit of clustering, but everybody clusters. It’s just that when you’re a part of the dominant group, you don’t realize you take your group’s clustering for granted. So all of a sudden when a minority group is doing it, it seems clique-ish or like a clan…

In Waco community and its history of segregation for African Americans, I think African Americans in Waco are perceived as less competent and more prone to violence. Basically not very upwardly mobile, and therefore, there’s always a migration away from where the black community happens to be.

What role do relationships play in the way we form stereotypes?

Sociologists have been saying this since the 1950s, contact with members of perceived out-groups becomes really key to reducing our prejudices. I don’t know if it necessarily  changes stereotypes, but it at least addresses our attitudes about these groups. What sociologists since the ’50s have qualified this with is, it isn’t enough to have contact with the out-group, the contact has to be of equal status…

Newer research argues that it’s not enough to say that contact helps, or contact with higher-status helps, it’s got to be more than token or symbolic. You’ve probably heard this phrase, “Some of my best friends are black.” What they are pointing out, oftentimes, is I know one person in my network of friends who is of a different race. What ends up happening in our stereotypes, is that person becomes the exception to the stereotype you already have to a particular out-group. You’re not really engaged in the world that many African Americans, for example, might inhabit, and the kinds of inequalities they face on a day-to-day basis. Contact with the network of people of a different out-group would probably be a step forward.

For a reader who’s thinking, ‘Maybe I stereotype more than I think,’ are there any more steps you suggest someone take to monitor their tendency to stereotype?

Practice self-reflection. Rather than immediately running with your first thought on a particular minority group, pause and acknowledge, “Oh, I’m running on a stereotype.” Then, think again, what would it look like if I didn’t work with this stereotype in mind about this person? Maybe you can avoid those slip-ups in conversations where you make an assumption about somebody from a particular background.

The task of overcoming your prejudices is really, really hard, but I think this is the grand work of being part of civilization in the 21st century. We’re supposed to be better than what our hunter-gatherer sensibilities programmed us to be. I want to believe we are capable of overcoming that. We are resilient.

As human beings in the 21st century, we can do better.  Let’s help each other to be that way and have compassion for those who are trying and still mess up. Express some charity without giving in… I think we forgive others, without forgetting that we’re aiming for an equal and tolerant society.