Lens fish-eyes/the_xyll/flickr
Source: Lens fish-eyes/the_xyll/flickr

“Being Black wasn’t important to him.”

“She was adopted from Korea and she didn’t have any problems growing up in this community.”

These were statements from two extremely intelligent, progressive, well-meaning White friends. The first friend referred to a student. The implication was that if being Black wasn’t important to this student, it isn’t important to other Black students, either.

The second friend tried to encourage me about raising my children, who were adopted from Japan, in a community where there were few people of color. The implication was that it didn’t matter that the girl was Korean.

My friends’ observations were not necessarily inaccurate. But they made generalizations about whole groups of people based on individuals. My friends had a fish-eye view of only a single part of the world. Such generalizations are stereotypes. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a popular TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”. She observed that, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Single influential experiences are what linguist George Lakoff has called “salient exemplars.” Salient exemplars come to mind immediately. What applies to one seems to apply to all. Politicians use salient exemplars. Reagan’s “welfare queen”, portraying women of color as abusing government support. Trump’s portrayal of immigrants as dangerous.

Why are single experiences so influential in forming stereotypes of other groups? A lack of experience with other groups is one reason. If one has little information about people in a group, they overly rely on what information they do have.

The good news is that psychological science tells us that we can reduce stereotypes. When we bring people’s attention to differences among members of a group, such as Arabs, people begin to perceive that not everyone in the group is alike. This perception of variability has the added benefit of less prejudice against the group. In contrast, attention to similarities among members of a group does not reduce prejudice.

So, if you’ve seen one, look for another one. Variety is the spice of life.

References

Er‐rafiy, A., & Brauer, M. (2012). Increasing perceived variability reduces prejudice and discrimination: Theory and application. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6, 920-935. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12000