I Am A Drunk Stick Figure And Proud Of It

June 19th, 2011 | Categories: Ethnicity

When a person acts a certain way, what (do we think) causes that behavior? A cartoon about a drunk stick figure prompted me to ask this question tonight.

Drunk Stick Figure

Seeing the first drunk stick figure above you may wonder: How often this stick figure gets drunk? Is the stick figure an alcoholic? Do the effects of the stick figure’s drinking impact other aspects of that stick figure’s life? You may begin to think less of this stick figure than you would another stick figure who you hadn’t seen drunk. In other words, you would make an internal attribution in which you blame the stick figure for drinking because (you think) it is in the stick figure’s power to stop or engage in this behavior.

Seeing the second drunk stick figure above, you may wonder less about the stick figure’s drunkenness particularly if you are familiar with stereotypes of Irish.

We use stereotypes to explain behavior. Once you discover that the stick figure is Irish suddenly the stick figure’s behavior makes sense to you. You (think you) know that the stick figure’s Irishness causes the stick figure to drink. You make an external attribution that the stick figure’s behavior is not in the stick figure’s control but that some outside factor (Irishness) is causing the stick figure to behave in this way.

We also use stereotypes to predict behavior. If you know the stick figure is Irish, you also (think you) know that the stick figure likes the color green and dances Riverdance. Because stereotypes help us both explain and predict behavior, they are particularly useful and convenient for us in trying to understand the stick figure’s behavior.

In a way, stereotypes can also be helpful for the person who is stereotyped. For example, if knowing that the stick figure is Irish means that the stick figure is not to blame for being drunk, then a person can still think highly of the stick figure because the behavior, according to the external attribution, is outside of the stick figure’s control. It’s not the stick figure’s fault. The stick figure is Irish after all.

Even as the stereotype enhances who the stick figure is by allowing us to understand the stick figure’s behavior better and without blame, somehow, the stereotype detracts from who that stick figure is. Somehow, the stick figure seems less real dancing in the green hat. The stick figure is less unique, less of an individual, less of a person.

The way stereotypes detract from a person are most obvious when the stereotypes of a group are bad, such as stereotypes of minorities. Consider some stereotypes that a class of students came up with for Blacks:

Stupid, Irresponsible, Crack babies, Teen pregnancy, Drop-outs, Incarcerated, Fathers leave their kids, Love fried chicken and Kool-Aid, Hard workers? Lazy? (there was considerable debate on this), Athletic, Violent, Live in the ghetto/the projects, Wasted generation, Loud, obnoxious, rude, Nappy hair, Bad attitudes, disrespectful, Hoodlums, Poor, Obese, Dirty, Sex, drugs, porn, weed, Guns, Low job expectations, Speak different English

Then compare these stereotypes to the ones they came up with for Whites:

Eating disorders, Trailer trash, rednecks, Very proper, Sense of entitlement, power, Always think they’re right, Rich with big houses, Have better jobs, Racist, Smart, Priority is staying in a relationship, Drink a lot of beer, No rhythm and bad music, Serial killers, suicidal, Can’t discipline their kids, Like crack, ecstasy, LSD, PCP, Origin of AIDS, Gay, Stuck-up, Nerds, Always in a hurry and on time, Impatient, rude, Scared, Can’t dress, Not funny, Not athletic, Plastic surgery, Serious, Smell funny, Blush

After reading these stereotypes of Blacks and Whites, you might begin to think, even if you’ve never been an advocate for minority rights, that given the choice you would rather be saddled with the list of white stereotypes than the list of Black stereotypes. Being a smart rich nerd with a great job and big house doesn’t sound too bad. So, it is not likely to be a surprise to hear me say that negative stereotypes of Blacks, for example, detract more than they enhance.

It might be more of a surprise for you to hear me say, though, that even positive stereotypes detract. Consider stereotypes about Asians, the Model Minority. Stereotypes of Asians such as that they are “A bright, shining example of hard work and patience whose example other minority groups should follow” and that they particularly excel in mathematics and sciences can just as much detract from who a person is as the black stereotypes listed above.

Imagine a Chinese student who has spent all day studying for a math exam, earns an A on the exam, and is told by a classmate, “Of course you did well. You are Asian after all.” Imagine a Chinese student who even after studying all day for the exam earns a D grade and is told by a classmate, “How could you have done THAT bad? You’re Asian. What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you supposed to be good at this stuff.”

When we say behavior is caused by some group membership, whether the stereotype is positive or negative, we detract from who that person is.

For better or worse we are who we are. We deserve credit for both the things we are proud of and those things for which we are not proud. Using a stereotype to attribute a person’s behavior to some group takes away that person’s individuality and uniqueness, making them somehow less of a person.

When you communicate the stereotype you are essentially telling that drunk stick figure that you are not seeing a drunk stick figure but that, at least for that moment, you are seeing a group of people you think the stick figure represents.

For the record, I prefer you see me, not my group membership.

Be Sociable, Share!
No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.