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Herbert A. Opalek: Stereotyping -- a way of life

Herb Opalek

Stereotyping is taken for granted as a way of life and, at one time or another, all of us have stereotyped.

To stereotype is to generalize about a group of people to whom we attribute a defined set of characteristics. These stereotypes can either be positive or negative.

When I lived in New York City the general stereotype was that Arabs comprised the majority of taxi drivers, Israelis owned the moving vans, Turks owned and pumped gas, Indians owned all the sleazy motels, Afghanis produced and sold the most fried or broasted (baked and roasted) chicken, Pakistani doctors manned the city's emergency rooms, and that Koreans owned the grocery stores and fruit stands.

A stereotype can be alluded to in single word or phrase, such as jock or nerd, an image, or a combination of words and images. The image evoked is easily recognized and understood by others who share the same views.

Examples abound.

Black men are good at basketball is either a positive or negative stereotype while women are bad drivers is a negative one. Most stereotypes tend to make us feel superior in some way to the person or group being stereotyped.

We even stereotype when we joke. That is why lawyer, blondes, and doctor jokes abound. In effect, stereotypes ignore the uniqueness of individuals by tarring all members of a group with the same feather.

One of the most blatant stereotypes is our presentation in schools on American Indians.

Many children hear the words "Indian" or "Native American" and picture a stereotypical image: someone wearing feathers, someone living in a tepee or someone to associate with Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims.

These images do not present children with an accurate portrayal of American Indians.

When stereotyping American Indians, we forget that there are many different tribes.

The reality is that in the United States there are separate Indian nations with different names, languages, and cultures. Placing all American Indians together does not allow children to see the diversity that exists there.

Gender stereotyping is also very common in our society and we all know the expression that women are the weaker sex.

Throughout history, women have had to buck this stereotype when rising to places of prominence and power.

The resentment and ambivalence toward women in positions of power and authority came to the fore early on (in ancient Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, China, medieval Europe, and the Victorian era) when these extraordinary women were derisively stereotyped and called domineering dowagers, witches and scheming concubines.

Christians are often stereotyped as being "holier than thou" and are believed to hold a belief that they are far better than everyone else.

This, like other stereotypes, is a statement borne of ignorance.

Just a brief perusal of the Bible ought to be enough to know that Jesus taught that no one is perfect. We all have our imperfections and need to improve ourselves. Likewise, Christians are taught to "judge not -- lest ye be judged."

It is easy to stereotype and we all fall into the habit of doing it.

I believe it is important to contain our prejudices and attempt to stop stereotyping. Stereotyping can never substitute for cold hard facts about people.

If you don't believe this to be true; then look at how many times people have said things about you that weren't true. Analyze how they based these comments about you on assumptions that they held about the group of people of which you are a part.

You can determine what causes you to use the stereotypes that you do use.

For example, you might realize that not all conservatives are religious, nor do all liberals want higher taxes. Attempt to rid yourself of prejudices and biases that lead you to stereotyping people.

We seem to enjoy stereotyping. Whether it be the homeless, the Christian, the blonde, the lawyer, the homosexual or lesbian; it seems that everyone has been fair game for our prejudices and our stereotypes.

It is about time that we stop and think before mislabeling our fellow citizen.

By ceasing to stereotype we will make the world a better place to live in.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.

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