Prejudice and Stereotyping – G.T.Health Newsletter 6

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Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”

 

– Maya Angelou 👥

 

 

December 2021, Volume 6

The G.T.Health Letter

~Adding a dose of mental health awareness to our community~ 

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What’s Inside: 

  • Mental Health Spotlight – Prejudice and Stereotyping
  • Literature Spotlight 
  • Xtra Scoop of the Week – Colorism
  • Weekly Testimonial – Misogyny in the Workplace

 

 

 

 

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Mental Health Spotlight – Prejudice and Stereotyping

What are stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination? 

Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination can be seen as linearly connected to each other, in that order. Stereotyping refers to the categorization of people (and things, animals, etc) into groups. These groups can be as macro-level as human vs. nonhuman, or as specific as transgender vs. transgender nonconforming. Stereotypes are often minutely based in truth, but exaggerate reality in ways that make them dangerous and useful to people who want spread false narratives about other groups. For example, there is biological validity in the belief that men are stronger than women. The hormone testosterone makes it so that males carry fat in different places on their bodies, are capable of packing on more muscle, and are generally capable of reaching higher peaks of physical fitness. However, not all men are stronger than all women. The scientific fact “testosterone affects the amount of lean muscle a person is capable of carrying” is very different than the stereotype that “men are stronger than women.” The first is a description, but the second is a prescription, an expectation of how women should be or act. This is precisely what makes stereotypes dangerous. Stereotyping is actually a useful, evolutionary action, which is why we still do it today. We are bombarded by millions of stimuli every second (lights, sounds, smells, objects), and if we tried to take it all in at once our brains would practically explode. To help us deal with sensory overload, our brains have to decide what to direct attention to based on a split second of sensory input from the eyes, ears, etc. This gives us a sort of tunnel vision, allowing us to focus on one thing at a time. To make things even easier, we learn from a very young age to divide the environment into categories: for example, we learn that four-legged, furry animals are mammals, so if we see a four-legged, furry animal we’ve never heard of we can quickly assign it a label and get on with it. This helps us quickly decide if something is a threat, if something is edible, if someone is part of our ingroup, or if something is of interest. The objective act of categorization is harmless; rather, it is the assumptions and expectations we create based on these labels that divides and harms society. Prejudice refers to the beliefs that we form based on the stereotypes we create: for example, “I prefer stronger things, so I dislike women for being weaker than men.” Discrimination is the actions we take based on our prejudices: “I dislike women because I believe stronger people are better, so when I see a woman coming I’m going to cross the street, or when I hire a woman I’m going to pay her less.” So, as you can see, something as innocent as a label can snowball into very, very big consequences. 

 

Why do we stereotype?

Stereotyping, in the basic sense of the word, is actually a helpful evolutionary process. The human environment is filled with millions of stimuli and distractors that move and change every second, some coming and going, competing for our attention constantly. If we were to notice everything around us equally all the time, our brains would practically explode; they are simply not meant to take in that much information. Ever wondered why you can’t multitask? It’s a similar principle; the brain has to constantly make instantaneous decisions about what in the environment is important and needs attention, and the rest falls away into the peripheral vision to be partially forgotten about. This kept ancient humans alive and helped them fend off predators; being able to tune out negligible stimuli allowed them to hyperfocus on the life-threatening one. This (the need to hyperfocus) is also the reason why humans still ruminate, even though it’s associated with depression. And, in addition to being accosted with millions of distractors at once, humans also encounter many, many variations of similar things: you might see ten different types of trees on your commute to work, or twenty different dog breeds in the dog show on TV. But we still know they’re all trees or all dogs, and thus don’t get hung up trying to categorize each one. This is the basic function of stereotyping: to categorize like entities so as to make them easier to understand. We learn this from a very young age, developing schemas (mental frameworks and categories) which we can fit certain things into; we stereotype four-legged animals as mammals, feathered animals as birds, etc. And we do this with humans, too; it’s an evolutionary way to decipher our ingroup. You look different than me, so you’re not part of my group and thus you might be a threat and you don’t get to share my food. Fine in theory, millions of years ago, but today, in an integrated society, this behavior of categorizing people is very dangerous. In fact, it’s not even the category itself that’s the problem; it’s the expectations we assign to that label. It’s not just “American,” it’s “likes fast food and doesn’t respect foreign cultures.” This expectation fuels prejudice and discrimination; we don’t just label a person, we make judgments about them based on an assumption we formed because of that label.

 

 

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How can we combat prejudice?

One of the most insidious things about prejudice is that it is sometimes so ingrained in society that we don’t even realize we are participating in it. Our explicit values, what we consciously believe, can be quite different and even contradictory to our implicit values, which show up on things like the Implicit Association Test (IAT). For example, I might consciously believe that men and women should be seen as equal and have equal job opportunities, but then I might only use he/him pronouns when referring to people like firefighters and presidents (i.e “if a firefighter ran into a burning building, he’d only have a minute to act”), which shows that I subconsciously still associate leadership roles and strength-based occupations with men. Prejudice is so difficult to combat, therefore, because people are convinced that they are not prejudiced; we are so conditioned to favor the majority that we assume our biases are just the way things are. One way to begin eradicating prejudice is to make people aware of it within themselves, or at least make people aware that others find it unacceptable. We all already know that prejudice exists; we are just reluctant to associate it with ourselves or admit that we might participate, even unconsciously. One study by Murrar and colleagues from 2020 used posters and short videos on a college campus that were either unrelated to prejudice, explained what prejudice was, or showed testimonials of fellow students speaking out against prejudice and giving their support to minorities. Only the testimonials against prejudice made a significant difference (especially the short videos), and that difference was big indeed: amongst majority students, there were more positive attitudes towards diversity and anti-bias awareness, and even more amazingly the achievement gap (the difference in grades) between minority and majority students lessened, likely because it benefitted minority students so much to feel acceptance. It is disheartening that prejudice is so deeply rooted, but studies like this provide a huge silver lining, showing that even small manipulations can make such a big difference.

 

What is do psychologists know about prejudice? 

One of my absolute favorite studies about prejudice to share with others is one by Salvatore and Shelton from 2007. These researchers set out to explore how prejudice affects people cognitively/mentally, and to do this they used a STROOP Task, which is an attention-consuming activity that can help psychologists measure cognitive interference, or the amount of influence an external factor has on a person’s ability to concentrate. Salvatore and Shelton recruited black and white participants and showed them [fake] hiring decisions about [fake] black and white job candidates. There were three experimental groups: the blatant prejudice group, the ambiguous prejudice group, and the control group. For reference, blatant prejudice refers to bias that is obvious; for example, somebody saying they don’t like me because I’m a woman. Ambiguous prejudice, on the other hand, is much harder to decipher, because the reason for the hostility is unclear. In the blatant prejudice condition, participants were shown, for example, a highly-qualified black candidate and an unqualified white candidate, and told the white candidate was chosen over the other because the black candidate was involved in too many minority organizations. In the ambiguous prejudice condition, the reason for making the unfair hiring choice was that the black candidate had the wrong major. In the control condition, the qualified candidate was rightfully picked, thus showing no signs of unfair bias. After being shown these decisions, participants were given a STROOP Task. The results are very significant: all participants showed more cognitive interference in the prejudice conditions versus the control, but black participants had much more interference in the ambiguous prejudice condition, and white participants had much more interference in the blatant prejudice condition. Not only does this show the harmful effects of prejudice and discrimination on people (both minority and majority), it also raises the interesting question of why black and white people react to bias differently. One hypothesis is that minority members are very used to dealing with blatant prejudice, but find it much harder to know how to react to ambiguous prejudice. White majority members, on the other hand, are not so used to blatant bias, and thus might be very shocked by its presence; they might even be so unused to bias that they can’t even detect ambiguous prejudice.

Murrar, S., Campbell, M. R., & Brauer, M. (2020). Exposure to peers’ pro-diversity attitudes increases inclusion and reduces the achievement gap. Nature Human Behavior, 1-21, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0899-5.
Salvatore, J. & Shelton, J. N. (2007).  Cognitive costs of exposure to racial prejudice. Psychological Science, 18(9), 810-815.

 

 

 

 

Literature Spotlight 

 

 

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky. 

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still

and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

https://www.poetryoutloud.org/poem/caged-bird/

 

 

Let’s talk about this poem; it’s one of my favorites and it is both beautiful and haunting. It is a poem that can be taken both literally and less literally, either speaking to actual bondage and enslavement or (more directly related to our current topic) the difference between a person who experiences prejudice and discrimination and a person who does not. Humans who identify with minority labels are more abundant than those who identify with majority label; generally, outgroups vastly outnumber ingroups (you as a Harvard student versus the students of every other school, for example), and each person holds many different identities simultaneously and thus has context-dependent experiences of belonging. For example, as a woman of Jewish descent I might hold majority status in a synagogue, but not in a church.

But there are some traits, light-skinned-ness in particular, which are fairly universally desirable; even if I, with light skin, am not always conscious of it, I hold an identity that gives me privilege over others. I benefit from institutions and structures that were made by and for people who look somewhat like me. In the context of my race, this is what it means to be a free bird; I do not have to sing of freedom, for I’ve never known anything else. I needn’t worry about being denied proper representation in a court of law because of my skin tone, or being profiled as untrustworthy. To be perfectly clear, most people don’t consciously think this way; most people don’t say “I’m going to represent you unfairly in court now because I’m lighter than you.” But prejudice and stereotypes are so hurtful that they don’t have to be explicit and conscious to have power.

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Xtra Scoop of the Week – Colorism

Colorism refers to the systematic preference for light skin across all societies; conversely, it is a bias against darkness of skin. This does not mean that people who are colorist necessarily want to be white, but the colonial idea of darkness as a negative trait with many negative stereotypes (for example, linking darkness to poverty) was a very dangerous and infectious one, and because of its power it still remains today. Colorism is present in mass media in many different forms: celebrities and idols will wear makeup or take filtered pictures in ways that make them look lighter, and skincare brands advertise the ideal beauty standard as milky, flawless, light skin. People will go to very radical extremes to lighten their skin because of these social pressures, ranging from wearing foundation three shades too light to actually bleaching their skin. In Jamaica, for example, around 11% of the population participates in skin bleaching; some women believe their skin color determines their worth and attractiveness to men, and will bleach themselves and even their children even at the risk of many adverse health effects, like liver issues and ochronosis, which is a splotchy-skin disease. Asia is also very invested in skin bleaching; the whitening market on this continent is worth a disturbing $7.5 billion. Idols from Korea, China, and other Asian nations promote skin lightness as desirable, and the beauty standard in East Asia is so strict and socially imposed that many people, sadly, take the idols’ advice.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/skin-bleaching-a-growing-problem-in-jamaica-slums/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/31/jamaican-dancehall-star-takes-her-countrys-discrimination-against-dark-skin/
https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Business-trends/Asia-s-skin-whitening-market-reckons-with-global-antiracist-push

 

 

Weekly Testimonial – Misogyny in the Workplace

 

 

 

Misogyny refers to ingrained prejudice against women. It can occur in many forms, such as believing women should stay in the home and take care of children rather than work, assuming women can’t do something because they are weaker than men, or paying/hiring women less in leadership or STEM-related roles. Although I personally have experienced racial and socioeconomic privilege in my lifetime, I am also a woman, and so I have some stories to tell about my experiences with men who feel threatened by, or better than, women. I work in Dining at Cornell as a manager, which means that I am a young (student) woman who works in a leadership role next to many older men. For one thing, there are no female chefs in my area of campus, nor are there any female cooks at the highest ranks. I’ve had experiences where I’ve tried to make positive change in the workplace, and employees were told that my ideas weren’t a threat because I’m “just a student manager.” I’ve had experiences with a fellow male employee (much older than me) being incredibly patronizing, making rude comments about how fast I speak, and generally treating me as a smaller, lesser person.

Having these interactions as a woman, or a member of any minority group (which many of us are) can make you feel small or unappreciated. Many discriminatory situations are impossible to escape, such as a job you need to support your family or a prejudiced landlord. I am lucky; I put up with misogynistic treatment for over two years, and am now finally deciding to leave Dining behind and take care of myself. But if you ever find yourself in a situation with a power imbalance or prejudice, remember that nothing is hopeless. You still matter, you still are perfect just the way you are, and you still have control over how you view yourself. Keep the fire of your self-love burning, even when it feels impossible, and it will be much harder for anyone who tries to snuff you out.

 

 

 

 

That’s all for this week, folks!
Next week’s topic:
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

 

 

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