September 29, 2010

Stereotypes as mental maps

We get e-mail:Dear Sir,

Browsing the internet I just happened to stumble over a thread that you wrote last year titled "Liv Tyler = Cherokee Pocahontas." I was so astonished by the views that I read in this article that it lead me to writing to you. Please excuse my English, although I have learned the language for quite some time by now, I am not a native speaker. So I hope that you will kindly excuse some of the mistakes I am sure to make.

If I got the thread right, then it would lead me to understand that you are opposed to stereotypes, specifically racial stereotypes concerning native Americans. While I am entirely opposed to racism and considering the history of my home country Germany I have been confronted with the topic of racism at home, in school, in my personal surroundings and due to my current homestead at a lot of places I pass daily, I was nevertheless astonished that you equal stereotyping one race to racism.

I am aware that both are very close to one another and that stereotyping can easily lead to all sorts of misinformed judgement and the associated unethical behaviour. The point that astonishes me is that you were so much opposed to stereotypes. I know that you were specifically writing about racial stereotypes, but I would consider these to be a subclass of stereotypes in general.

My opinion is that stereotypes are necessary. Please let me explain.

When somebody is first confronted with a new situation, person or phenomenon, he or she, I think, will first try to somehow categorize and classify what it is. ... So I would not be astonished if somebody who is not informed about a topic or a group has a very vague and necessarily in some aspects wrong opinion on said topic. This would to me equal to stereotypes. To me stereotyping is not always malevolent but at most times just a sign that somebody is undereducated on a certain subject.

I always felt that somebody who uses stereotypes, be they national stereotypes, cultural stereotypes or racist stereotypes, is only at the beginning of a learning process. That some people never go on to develop their stereotypes into an adequate mental categorization is sad, yes. But it can hardly be said that the stage of stereotyping "what ever it is that you have to learn about" has to lead to unethical and malevolent behaviour. If you are aware that you are stereotyping somebody because you do not know enough about him or her and his or her culture or nation yet, the stereotyping itself does not have to be bad, I would hope. For example I used to dress up in a horribly stereotype Native American costume when I was five years old. I did not know any better. But I never felt any dislike or even hatred toward Native Americans. How could I? I still sadly did not meet anybody who could rightly say that he or she is Native American up to this day.

Still I would always think that I liked to dress up in that costume when I was young because I liked the little I knew about Native Americans at that time and appreciated it as best I could without wanting to hurt anybody's feelings. Now I know of course that the costume I wore then was mostly inspired by stereotypes which had been presented to me via media. Should I really be angry at my parents for letting me dress up and play like that? I do not think so. I did not stop at that stage, but went on to learn more about the culture and history of some Native American tribes and nations.

Looking back I would venture to say that the costume I wore as child was not racist. It just showed that I liked Native American culture although at same time I obviously did not know enough about it. I am happy that my first encounter with what I then perceived to be Native American was a positive one, though. What would have happened if I had been forbidden the costume I cannot know. Maybe I would have associated my early stereotype of Native Americans negatively, which would have meant a big loss to me.
My response:

You're basically arguing for stereotypes as mental maps. The idea is that people start with a limited understanding of the world. This understanding is based mainly on their necessarily narrow perceptions and experiences. They know only what's in front of them because, well, how could they know anything else? Whatever they see becomes the template for a whole category of things.

For instance, suppose someone sees only purebred collies in his childhood. These will form his mental map of dogs. He'll develop a stereotypical notion of what a dog is: an animal that looks like a collie.

When he sees his first St. Bernard, greyhound, Afghan, poodle, or Chihuahua, he may have trouble processing it. "That's not a real dog," he may think to himself. But he'll eventually learn that other breeds are dogs also, and broaden his mental "dog" map. He'll replace his dog stereotypes with a genuine understanding of dogs.

Michael Cooke is big on stereotypes as mental maps. I think that's what he was arguing in Headdresses = Fedoras? and Stereotypes Okay in "Cultural Commons"? Namely, that our culture's mental map of Indians is a Plains chief or warrior. It's not anyone's fault; it's just the way it is. People should strive to become better educated, but we can't blame them for starting from an ignorant position.

Mental maps aren't unbiased

A couple problems with this stance. For starters, people don't hold the "savage Indian" stereotype in isolation. They don't think, "Indians are Plains chiefs and warriors, but other than that I draw no conclusions about them. I'm completely neutral about Indians except for how I envision their appearance."

The so-called mental map is part of a continuum of beliefs and values. If you have one stereotypical view of Indians, you're likely to have others. Whoever has educated you--your parents, your schools, the media, society--has linked these stereotypical views into an overall perspective. It goes something like this:

  • Indians wear headdresses, live in teepees, and say "How!"

  • Indians are savages, degenerates, heathens, or killers.

  • I don't like Indians because they're bad people.

  • My people are better than Indians.

  • Indians deserve what they got--what they continue to get--because they're inferior.

    Think about the word "savage." Any claim that it's a neutral word is ridiculous. "Savage" has a host of negative associations with it: lacking intelligence and civilization, violent and bloodthirsty, etc.

    Describing people as "savages" is a value judgment, not an impartial description of their status. That's why we apply the word to murderers, terrorists, and Nazis even though they may be cultured and sophisticated. When you stereotype Indians as savages, you're comparing them to the dregs of humanity.

    Stereotypes aren't malevolent?

    As you say, stereotyping is often based on ignorance. Stereotyping and ignorance are often harmful whether they're malevolent or not. So the issue isn't whether someone's intent is evil. It's whether the actions have harmful effects.

    In the case of Native stereotyping, they do. They perpetuate and reinforce centuries of negative attitudes. As I noted in Stereotypes Disappear "Organically"? these attitudes have real-world consequences. Genocide happened because Americans deemed Indians "savages."

    I've written about the harm of Native stereotypes many times. For instance:

    Why people don't care about Indians
    Background research on Native stereotypes
    Miner's canary = broken window
    Stereotypical thinking causes racist results

    Because of this documented harm, we oppose Native stereotypes. Not so much in children who may have a naïve but sincere interest in Indians. But in adults who should know better.

    You gave the example of a five-year-old wearing a Halloween costume. My parents dressed me as a stereotypical Mexican peasant--with a sombrero, poncho, and mustache--when I was about two. Yes, it was arguably racist and no, I don't blame my younger self for it.

    The questions you've failed to ask are: What about the parents, or whoever bought or made the costume? What about the store that sold the costume? What about the friends and family members who congratulated you and your parents on the costume? Or at least tolerated and accepted it despite its racist implications? What about the schools, the media, and society at large, which perpetuated the idea of Indians as primitive people of the past?

    What's their excuse for the costume worn by the five-year-old? Really, I'd like to hear it.

    Did the parents try to research Indian apparel before dressing up the child as a human cliché? No, of course not. So that's another problem with the "mental map" theory. People don't just start off as ignorant innocents who want to know more. They choose to remain ignorant despite the availability of information.

    Adults aren't little children

    I generally don't criticize little children who don't know any better. I generally criticize only adults who have had ample opportunities to overcome their stereotypical beliefs.

    Sure, people form and rely on stereotypes when they initially learn about something. That's a good excuse for a child or an ignorant adult who's just encountered a foreign culture. But today's Americans generally have 12 years of grade-school education, some college education, and countless sources of information in print, video, and online. They have no excuse not go beyond their stereotypical beliefs to reach the truth.

    In the mid-20th century, you might've had a good excuse for being ignorant. There were no Indians in the media except for Western movies and TV shows. Real-life Indians had yet to make an impression with Alcatraz, Wounded Knee II, and other forms of activism. Your only source of information was the local library, and finding accurate information might've taken you hours. So remaining ignorant when there was no pressing need to educate yourself was an understandable option.

    Now things have changed dramatically. Most schools provide at least some accurate information about Indians. Many entertainment productions--movies, TV shows, books, comic books, etc.--do likewise. Indians get their fair share of media coverage--as you can see every day in Newspaper Rock,,, Indian Country Today, and other news sources.

    In short, if there was ever an excuse for ignorance, it no longer exists.

    So stereotypes don't exist in isolation, and people don't strive to overcome their ignorance. In fact, as we've seen, today's hipsters revel in their ignorance. "On some level we recognize that Indians aren't savages," they may think. "But it's so cool, hip, and transgressive to portray them that way. Acting like yesteryear's racists and bigots is our way of thumbing our nose at society."

    No excuses for "how"

    Someone recently told me a story about a non-Native father and son at a powwow. The father went up to the Indian and told the boy to say "How!" I don't know exactly what happened next, but the Indian said something critical. The father responded with something apologetic along the lines of, "I thought that was a genuine greeting." The Indian walked away in disgust.

    We can't blame the non-Natives much if they didn't know any better. If I were the Indian, I might've said something like, "That's not a genuine greeting. It's a stereotype from countless old movies and TV shows.

    "You're insulting us by assuming we all had one language and one grunt-like greeting. Actually, we come from hundreds of different cultures, each with its own language and greeting. Please learn something about real Indians and don't do it again."

    For the most part, though, ignorance isn't a good excuse. Hollywood studios have every resource necessary to portray Indians accurately, yet they seldom do it. Same with corporations when they choose their product names and logos and craft their commercials. How can they spend millions of dollars on research yet get the basic facts wrong?

    And most sports fans have heard that Indians don't like being mascots. These fans aren't just ignorant, they're willfully ignorant. They're ignoring the information handed to them because they want to keep their mascots. They want to think of Indians as primitive people of the past because it fits their political and social agenda.

    If you're not clear on what that agenda is, I've explained it many times. For instance:

    Obama smeared as Luo tribesman
    Conservative bigotry against Islam
    Indians in Christian textbooks
    Sherrod incident shows conservative tactics
    Why Americans hate welfare
    Columnist shows how racists view Indians
    Conservatives' pro-white agenda


    When people are merely ignorant, we protest the system that keeps them ignorant. When they're willfully ignorant, we protest them and their racist attitudes. I wouldn't say every stereotyper is a racist, but every stereotype contributes to society's racist beliefs and perceptions. If these people aren't part of the solution, they're part of the problem.

    People can hold these perceptions and not be "malevolent," but that doesn't mean we should give them a pass. Since their perceptions lead to harmful consequences, they need to change their perceptions.
  • 1 comment:

    Charle said...

    I absolutely love this post, and it reminded me of this clip from classic Sesame Street regarding stereotypes about Native Americans--it's simple, and yet it says EVERYTHING.