Painting A Group of People With The Same Color Brush
Recently, at a restaurant while on vacation I was offered the delightful place-mat below for my children’s use coupled with the requisite and generous mini-package of crayons.
I am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t even the one who noticed it. Someone else had to bring it to my attention. What, you might ask, is “it”? Well, can you see for yourself?
Perhaps it is hard for you to notice as well. Sometimes stereotypes are communicated in subtle ways after all. Yet, you might still have that aha moment when you realize that the basketball player is black, the soccer player is Hispanic, and the skateboarder, no doubt from California, is white.
You might try to argue that this is a coincidence, but a coincidence is not likely. For example, in 2009 a study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that nearly 82% of NBA players were black. Although demographic data on skateboarding and soccer were difficult to find, this statistic suggests there may be something to the place-mat’s representation of race.
So, someone else might argue that the manufacturer was merely playing the odds by appealing to the most people either those who are actually in those statistics or those who would expect those groups to be represented in that way. It seems then that playing the odds in this way could be viewed as a sound business decision. After all, there are more people who either fit those stereotypes or believe in those stereotypes than there are stereotype gurus like me in the world.
Despite this, this stereotype guru isn’t convinced that it is a good business decision to paint all the members of a group with the same brush. There is, after all, variation within groups. This intra-group heterogeneity is often forgotten because most people assume members of the same group ‘must’ be similar (intra-group homogeneity) and members of different groups ‘must’ be different (inter-group heterogeneity). Despite these assumptions, intra-group heterogeneity is more common than people realize. Consider the following examples.
Here is an article explaining why not all black people thought highly of O.J. Simpson though they were stereotyped as thinking that way: O.J. is Not a Black Hero.
Here is an article about a black student who sent hate mail posing as a white student: Black Student Sent Hate Mail.
Here is an article about why there is not really such a thing as a leader of the black community: Being a Black Leader in America. I n this article the author invokes the diversity of the black community as a reason for his claims in the articles saying, “that one person can no more represent the hopes and aspirations of all blacks than one leader can represent whites in all matters of public consequence.”
Perhaps the most relevant article of the ones included here is this one titled Fault Blair and The Times, Not Affirmative Action. This article discusses why Jason Blair and The New York Times are to blame for the debacle in which Blair plagiarized and lied in his articles without detection by the Times. The author’s take on the situation, which was often blamed on affirmative action, is simply that Blair was an unqualified person whose incompetence was handled poorly by the Times. Essentially, what the author is saying is that to call the matter an issue of affirmative action is to paint all blacks with the same brush and doing that is probably what allowed Blair to last so long undetected.
In other words, it is inappropriate to paint all of the members of a group with the same brush, even if some statistics give the appearance of the stereotype being accurate. Why? Because each situation and person is unique and stereotypes are not. Stereotypes lead to nonspecific and impersonal assumptions that can lead to poor business decisions.
I might be the only stereotype guru out there that was troubled by the stereotype in the place-mat but I bet I’m not the only person out there that is, regardless of my skin color, gender, age, and so forth. Assuming otherwise, is bad for business.