In our North American society we rely so heavily on stereotypes to justify unpopular or what we know is discriminatory opinions because it is easy and widely acknowledged. Broadly speaking, stereotypes are a generalization about a person or group of people. We rely on stereotypes because “language constitutes reality” and therefore by saying something is a stereotype you are implying that it is mostly true for an entire group of people. We have all heard and probably used stereotypes in our daily lives to justify opinions or reactions to the people around us.
“All women love jewelry”
“All Jews are cheap”
“All black men are dangerous”
“All Muslims are terrorists”
and the list goes on. But really, what are we saying when we employ these stereotypes and where are they coming from? Firstly, stereotyping itself is justified by the statement that: “there is always a kernel of truth”, or “all my experience has shown me, this is true”. I call bullshit. The world is made up of roughly half female identified persons… and they all love jewelry? Firstly, what perspective are you coming from? A North American one, one of privilege and opportunity. Yet, what about all the men who love jewelry? What? Watches don’t count? The stereotype that all women love jewelry is entirely based on a North American, privileged and sexist idea that women are inherently shallow and materialistic. This stereotype extends very clearly all the way into Medieval Europe with Sumptuous Laws and later in the Renaissance as well. These laws sought to limit and regulate consumption. This very directly looked at clothing and jewelry. These laws were classed and sexed as fine clothing and jewelry were a sign of wealth and prestige but commoners who wanted to imitate by wearing these signs of the upper-class were unbalancing the class hierarchy. At the same time, dressing and ornamenting your property was a sign of wealth and throughout much of history (and even today), women were considered prize property. The stereotype that women could put their husbands out of house and home through their unchecked spending in order to obtain fine clothing and jewels was highly at play during times of sumptuous laws. Of course, that is partially because (high-class) women were forced to stay at home and were sheltered from the indecencies of the outside. This later in the Victorian Era was termed the Public/ Private divide. This gender system saw men as public figures, going outside for work and being public personalities and women remaining inside to tend to the house and home. Women were therefore required to maintain the household and everyone in it to the utmost respectability, including having fine and respectable clothing and jewels as appropriate to their class. Thus, just like today, women are forced into this lose- lose situation where they are expected to buy yet are demonized for doing so.
Historically speaking, Jews have been one of the most ostracized groups, based on religious beliefs, in the course of recorded human history. The stereotype that all Jews are cheap (financially) are based on two things: 1) Jews have historically been well-known for money-lending and 2) they have a history of being forced out of their countries of birth/ origin that they have been forced to be conscious of money and how to make do in difficult situations. In the Middle Ages, a group of Jews were well known as money-lenders to many in the towns around them (read mostly the area that will be called Europe). Even now, one of the most profitable enterprises is money-lending. Furthermore, as a group which has repeatedly been used as scapegoats for those in power, Jews and their role with money has been turned from thrifty, and money savvy to cheap and usurers. On the second point, Jews have been exiled from various countries around the world up to 109 times since 250 AD (seriously, I’ll include the list below in a link). Any immigrant, child of an immigrant or refugee knows how difficult it is to come to a new country, especially when exiled and it is especially hard when it comes to money. So historically speaking, Jews as a group of people have had to be very conscious of money and how to transport it. It’s not cheap to care about where ones money is and where it is going.
I could write forever about the stereotypes involved with the Scary Black Man and the Terrorist Muslim but these topics have been beaten over the head so often that they should be a non-issue… they still are… The dangerous black man goes back to days of early slavery in various colonies around the world and the fact that often black slaves far out numbered white owners. Of course, it is far more complicated than that as the development of the racism we know today took centuries to build including ideas about the sexual black beast that rapes white women, and the resulting lynching in America. Guess what, it is RACISM to assume that every black man walking down the street is going to rob you, rape you, or murder you. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of black men in the prison system in America… just like there is a ridiculous amount of aboriginal men in Canadian prisons… see a pattern? Some of the most marginalized and unappreciated individuals in our society are tossed into jails for the smallest crimes (like marijuana) because it is easier to lock them up than educate or treat them properly.
After 9/11 racism and racist stereotypes intensified surrounding Muslim people, but lets be honest, this stereotype involves anyone appearing to be brown in North America. Furthermore, lets not pretend that this racism against Muslims is new… IT’S NOT. This east/ west divide has existed all the way to at least Roman times when Constantine the Great wanted to bridge this apparent divide and capitalize on it by moving Rome’s metropolis to Constantinople in 324 AD. We constitute ourselves by what we are not, thus we must create and CONSTRUCT an Other which to create ourselves by. If we are progressive, enlightened, and democratic than our Other is oppressive, backwards and communist or ruled by a dictator or has a king or… etc etc. We have constructed ourselves as the opposite of Muslim/ Eastern culture and people, and thus use stereotypes to distance ourselves from what we view is wrong with that culture. In fact, the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists is in exact opposition to the stereotype that Canada and the United States are peace-keeps, and heroes.
By no means does this blog entry exhaust the complexity of the stereotypes discussed or of the thousands of others that exist. Yet, it is important to look at history and to challenge what is deemed normal to say and do because stereotyping is discriminatory in nature and ultimately creates a culture of mistrust and hatred. Free yourselves and be conscious of the language you use.