Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

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Shelley Bridgeman: Positive stereotyping is not okay

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Facebook indulged in a spot of racial stereotyping in its recent television commercial which was dissected in Here Are All the Racial Stereotypes In Facebook's Weird New 'Chairs' Ad. The advertisement "uses a lot of racial shorthand ... Unfortunately, that shorthand indicates that black people like to sit on junky furniture on the sidewalk, while white people lounge in richly furnished rooms."

Of course, some stereotypes are positive, even complimentary, about the particular race or sector of society being pigeonholed. We've probably all heard that Jamaican people are fast runners, Asian people are good at maths and fat people are jolly. (And, yes, "Asian" is a problematic label itself - all but meaningless since it can refer to people hailing from India to Japan and everywhere in between.)

Why stereotypes are bad even when they're 'good' debunks the myth that propagating stereotypes about a particular positive attribute or skill is harmless. Lazy generalisations such as "black people are ... better at sport" or "women are more in touch with their emotions" are considered every bit as unacceptable as derogatory racial stereotypes.

As discussed in The Guardian article, positive stereotypes can "fly under people's stereotype-detecting radars". A reader called ystar perceptively commented that positive stereotyping can effectively "groom the audience", laying the foundations perhaps for less complimentary sentiments to follow.

Evidently, research has shown that "the positive stereotype seemed more likely to lead people to believe that differences between blacks and whites were biological in origin." So in accepting even seemingly benign observations about a particular group of people we are establishing a real sense that these fellow human beings are quite different to "us".

The article articulated why I've long been uncomfortable with hearing that "Fijians are so friendly" and "gay men are great gardeners" - although I think anyone who has ever toured the spectacularly fabulous urban oasis opened for Auckland's annual Heroic Gardens Festival would be forgiven for subscribing to this particular belief.

Then there's the argument about the negative subtext that may be attached to any ostensibly positive stereotype. Is "creative gardener" code for "hasn't got a practical bone in his body"? Is "good at sport" shorthand for "not very smart"? Does "in touch with their emotions" mean "emotional"?

Even chivalry, that old-fashioned notion of men treating women like decorative objects unable to fend for themselves, gets a dressing down. "[S]ure, it involves being kind to people, but it still involves relating to those people primarily as members of a demographic category, not as individuals," said The Guardian piece.

Positive stereotyping then is a way for seemingly innocuous discriminatory biases to gain broad acceptance. Whether the lines are based along race, gender, sexual orientation or some other social divide, positive stereotyping is thinly veiled prejudice - a surreptitious gateway to wholesale discrimination.

What are your thoughts on positive stereotyping? Is it just as bad as its negative counterpart? Or does the fact of its inherent subterfuge make it even worse?


Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

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