When It Comes To Stereotypes, Beware Of The Exception

July 6th, 2011 | Categories: Stereotypes in General

With the 10th pick in the 2011 draft, the Sacramento Kings selected Jimmer Freddette. Considering his domination in college, Freddette is an exceptional player.

The Exception

More importantly, Fredette is an exception. Fredette is “said to be ‘surprisingly’ athletic and ‘deceptively’ quick” according to ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor. O’Connor explains how the stereotype that whites are not as athletic as blacks has worked against Fredette who has had to prove himself against the stereotype. Nonetheless, O’Connor is hopeful that Fredette can “help change the unfortunate language of the NBA draft, one littered with racial code words that need to die a sudden and painful death.”

Sorry O’Connor. The exception to a stereotype will never help combat the stereotype. This article will help explain why. Consider the following conversation.

Sally: Well,  you know how they are.

Sammy: What do you mean by that?

Sammy challenges the stereotype by questioning what it is. Questioning a stereotype in this way is exactly what I argued people should do in my June 23rd article titled A Milder Approach. A challenging response like that treats stereotypes like any other confusing statement that someone might say. It provides the person who communicated the stereotype the opportunity to back track or at least explain themselves. This  enables all people in the conversation to maintain a positive impression rather than anyone looking like a racist, sexist, or homophobic person or like a politically correct self-righteous prig.

Unfortunately, sometimes we add a personal defense to this challenge. Here’s what this might look like:

Sally: Well,  you know how they are.

Sammy: What do you mean by that? I’m one of them and I don’t act that way.

Here,  Sammy follows his challenge with a defense.  In his defense Sammy presents himself as a member of the stereotyped group. This should make his point stronger because people might see him as being a representative of and as being able to speak for the group. As a member of the group who has characteristics counter to the stereotype, Sammy represents evidence of the falsity of the stereotype.

Sammy is in the Stereotyped Group.

By providing himself as an example that counters the stereotype, Sammy is able to distance himself from the stereotype. Unfortunately, Sammy also distances himself from the stereotyped group. In the same sentence in which he had just presented himself as a group member, he immediately distances himself personally from the group’s stereotypical characteristics.


Stereotyped Group.

In doing so, Sammy inadvertently confirms that the stereotype is true just not for him. Rather than challenging the stereotype, Sammy actually provides a way to promote the stereotype as true.  Sammy is the exception to the stereotype.

Sally: Well,  you know how they are.

Sammy: What do you mean by that? I’m one of them and I don’t act that way.

Sally: Of course. I didn’t mean you. You’re fantastic, wonderful, the best ever.

By adding himself as an exception to the stereotype in the conversation, Sammy makes the next move for Sally an easy one. Sally’s inevitable response confirms that Sammy is an exception to the otherwise true stereotype. Sally still gets to be right about the stereotype and Sammy gets to be exceptional compared to other members of his group.

O’Connor argues that as an exception to the stereotype Fredette can challenge that stereotype. But this cannot be the case. Far from it. Rather than allowing the stereotype and racial code words to “die a sudden and painful death” as O’Connor hoped, Fredette’s being exceptional promotes the stereotype and confirms it as true. After all, Fredette is of course fantastic, wonderful, the best ever.

Beware of the exception.

It makes the exceptional person look great but everyone else in his or her group looks that much worse.



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