Stereotypes: a necessary evil?
The movie Crazy Rich Asians is not your typical Hollywood production. Filmed in Singapore and boasting an all-Asian cast that included many well-known Singaporean actors, it seemed like it was made to represent Singaporeans. Yet, some locals felt that it stereotyped our multicultural country and people by oversimplifying Singapore as just another wealthy and Chinese country (Ellis-Peterson & Kuo, 2018). Appearances by significant non-Chinese ethnic groups like the Malays and Indians were rare, and only in minor roles as valets and security guards (Sholihyn, 2018).
Racial bias as exemplified above is just one way of stereotyping. Stereotypes may also be formed on the basis of religion, social status, age, gender or sexuality, and often have negative connotations of prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes are social categories we create of others based on our overgeneralised beliefs about their group rather than of them as individuals (McLeod, 2017).
Yet, the cognitive process of stereotyping is an essential aspect of the way we function, and may even have ensured our ancestors’ survival in prehistoric times. Cognitive biases enabled early humans to quickly categorise something as friendly or threatening, and to respond in ways that tried to reduce perceived threats (Arizona State University, 2005). In modern day, this cognitive process can be useful in informing the way we interact with our surroundings based on our experiences, for instance, we behave and dress differently at a hawker centre (casual) versus at a fine-dining restaurant (formal).
When stereotyping behaviour begins, and why it sticks
Categorising experiences helps us understand and navigate our world. Studies show that we learn stereotyping behaviours from early childhood, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old learn racial and gender stereotyping from the behaviours of parents and peers (Cameron et al., 2001).
We also develop and maintain stereotypes from media such as advertisements, television programmes, movies and social media. These platforms are saturated with representations that are constantly activating and reinforcing our stereotypic thinking without us even being aware (Kimball, 1986). Films like Crazy Rich Asians may skew perceptions of what Singapore and Singaporeans are like, and these stereotypes may go unchallenged if we are under-represented in American popular culture.
The cumulative experiences from our upbringing and media-based stereotypes make us respond to categories of people as though we already know what they are like individually.
Once established, stereotypes tend to be reinforced through one’s experiences. The cumulative experiences from our upbringing and media-based stereotypes make us respond to categories of people as though we already know what they are like individually (Trope & Thompson, 1997). Even if our beliefs are not accurate or valid, they seem right and natural to us (Yzerbyt et al., 1994), and we tend to remember instances where information confirms them instead. For instance, a person who stereotypes women as bad drivers will tend to remember instances of a woman driving badly than when she drives well. This is known as illusionary correlation, where we perceive the world in ways to make it fit our existing beliefs, rather than change our beliefs to fit the reality around us (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014).
Mild to dangerous manifestations of stereotyping
Whether we are aware when we commit stereotyping behaviours, stereotyping—in subtle or explicit forms—is not innocuous. Take everyday subtle racism in Singapore, which may manifest as playful naming-calling, racist jokes, or expressions of displeasure within in-groups (Velayutham, 2017). These prejudicial practices, while usually confined to the in-group so as not to conflict with anti-racist norms, continue to shape people’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses towards members of the out-group (National Research Council, 2004).
Reports of extreme displays of prejudice and discrimination have emerged in recent news. Cases of hate crimes against Asian Americans rose in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, after Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric (Abrams, 2021). In Singapore, an Indian-Filipino man who was out with his Chinese girlfriend was publicly harassed by a polytechnic lecturer for dating ‘outside of his race’ (Ang, 2021).
Impact of discrimination on health and well-being
The omnipresence of unfair treatment accumulated through daily interactions can cause lasting effects on one’s body and brain (Ajrouch et al., 2010). The chronic stress from experiencing discrimination increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and inflammation, and may also lead to more high-risk behaviours such as excessive drinking and smoking, and fewer health-promoting behaviours such as having sufficient sleep (Williams et al., 2019).
Additionally, the build-up stress and heightened emotions from experiences of discrimination can also spill over into social relationships (Henion & Chopik, 2017). This is especially significant as social support is a key protective factor to the negative effects of discrimination (Wofford et al., 2019).
Biologically, studies have shown that greater discrimination exposure is associated with stronger connectivity between the amygdala (a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli) and several other brain regions. Strong coupling within this system correlates with an increase in physiological arousal, vigilance, threat-related processing, and associative learning processing (Clark et al., 2018). This can persist even when the precipitating stressor has subsided. The greater the experience of discrimination, the more likely these effects will take a toll on one’s physical and mental health.
Putting a check on stereotyping and discriminatory behaviours
Governments and minority groups worldwide are speaking out about prejudicial attitudes. But each of us has a role to play too. By developing and practising empathy, that is, taking the perspective of out-groups and putting ourselves in their shoes, in-group bias and stereotype accessibility can be significantly reduced (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). Try considering these questions (Plous, 2003):
- How would I feel in that situation?
- How are they feeling right now?
- Why are they behaving that way?
Intergroup contact has been studied to be extremely effective in prejudice reduction. Through equal status contact in the pursuit of common goals, it leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).
There also needs to be more open and constructive conversations about discrimination. In conducting such discussions, it is important to refrain from making judgments as not all discriminative actions are done with a motive to hurt. Rather than being quick to label someone as a racist, use the opportunity to challenge their opinions rationally and constructively such that they can improve and educate themselves better.
Next week in Part II, we examine how stereotypes impact performance in school and the workplace.
Kee Juan is a psychology student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). His interests lie in gaining a better understanding of psychological difficulties and their distress effects on people. He is also a passionate advocate for mental health in the community.
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