Stereotyping and prejudice

‘Stereotype’ has traditionally been defined as specific over-generalised beliefs about a group or class of people, such as descriptions of what members of a particular group look like, how they behave, or their cognitive abilities. ‘Prejudice’, on the other hand, refers to the attitudes and feelings – whether positive or negative and whether conscious or non-conscious – that people have about members of other groups.

Prejudice and stereotyping are generally considered to be the product of adaptive processes that simplify an otherwise complex world so that people can devote more cognitive resources to other tasks. However, despite any cognitively adaptive function, they may serve, using these mental shortcuts when making decisions about other individuals can have serious negative ramifications like stereotype threat.

Racial stereotyping

By racial stereotyping, we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. One of the consequences of this behaviour is that it makes us ignore differences between individuals, and we think things about people that might not be true. In other words, we make sweeping generalisations.

Racial stereotyping leads to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudiced attitudes, i.e. a “them” and “us” mentality. And not surprisingly racial stereotypes always seem to favour the ethnic group of the holder and belittle other ethnic groups. It is probably true to say that every ethnic group has racial stereotypes of other groups.

Racial prejudice

The literature on the nature and causes of racial prejudice is vast and varied. By and large, racial prejudice can be defined as an unreasonable dislike or hostility toward a particular group of people, typically arising from race-based stereotypes. According to the UN Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, racial prejudice is historically linked with inequalities in power, and it is reinforced by economic and social differences between individuals and groups.

Stereotype threat

A stereotype threat arises when a person is in a situation where they have a fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype. It can occur by the mere recognition that a negative group stereotype could apply to them in a given situation. It is important to understand that the person may experience a threat even if they do not believe the stereotype.

For example, Steele and Aronson (1995) conducted an experiment involving African American and White college students who took a difficult test using items from an aptitude test (American GRE Verbal exam) under one of two conditions.

In the stereotype threat condition, students were told that their performance on the test would be a good indicator of their underlying ‘racial’ intellectual abilities. In the non-threat condition, they were told that the test was simply a problem-solving exercise and was not diagnostic of ability.

The performance was compared in the two conditions and results showed that African American participants performed less well than their white counterparts in the stereotype threat condition, but in the non-threat condition their performance matched that of their white counterparts.

According to Steele, stereotype threat generates “spotlight anxiety” (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 809), which causes emotional distress and “vigilant worry” that may undermine performance. Students worry that their future may be compromised by society’s perception and treatment of their group, so they do not focus their full attention on the test questions.

Racial Prejudice and stereotyping are biases that work together to create and maintain social inequality – whether positive or negative and whether conscious or non-conscious. All individuals and groups have the right to be different, to consider themselves as different, and to be regarded as such. However, the diversity of lifestyles and the right to be different should not, under any circumstances, serve as a pretext for racial prejudice and stereotyping.

References & further reading