The Simplest way to Begin Reducing Prejudice; Counter-stereotypical Representation

Real-life and media representation of people doing actions that challenge their racial or gender stereotypes changes children’s belief in their own abilities and makes adults less prejudice

Psychological research has shown that everyone is prejudice in some way. We all have a subconscious that learned how the world worked through our own experiences, parents, communities, cultures, and countries. When we get behind the Ferrari at a red light instead of the minivan because we stereotype people with Ferraris drive faster than owners of minivans, that's prejudice. Most people are more likely to cross the street if a stereotypical biker man is walking towards them, than if someone who looks like Ted Bundy is.

Cultural, or systemic, prejudice are stereotypes that are common among a specific culture. Even if we insist that we do not believe in a cultural prejudice, we know them.

Every American can name the minority based on their stereotypes, whether or not you actually believe said stereotypes. If you don't quite believe me yet, then read the following stereotypes. You will know which minority I am trying to show you stereotypes of.

1: eats fried chicken and watermelon, are better at sports, are more dangerous, listen to rap, etc.

2: Delicate, emotional, caring, bad at math, neglect career for family, love chocolate, physically weak, natural parenting instinct.

Did you know what minority group these cultural stereotypes belong to? Of course, you do. It is part of American cultural stereotyping.

Counter-stereotypes are what they sound like, having a minority group member doing the opposite of their stereotype. If you are surprised when your mechanic is a Japanese woman, you are feeling the effects of counter-stereotype surprise, which we will discuss later as a way to combat prejudice.

Systematic prejudice is not an easy issue to tackle, it is extremely complex. I am not an expert by any means and encourage readers to do their own research into these topics. I have provided some background so that my research into the effects of counter-stereotypes will be understood by a wider audience.

To make our society better we have to use diverse ways to reduce personal and cultural prejudice, there is no single way that works perfectly. Systematic prejudice, such as American racism, did not develop quickly or neatly, and neither will dismantling it. Counter-stereotype models are a good place to start, and something that everyone can work to implement into their own lives to make the world a better place.

When humans were all living in nomadic tribes or small farming communities, prejudice had a large part in survival because it kept outsiders, who might have small-pox or weapons or steal food, away. Now that we have cities with millions of peoples, a history of wars and oppression, complex cultural backgrounds, and societal structures that aim to serve giant populations, prejudice has become problematic.

Reducing prejudice of all kinds is a frustrating and slow endeavor since people have many reasons to create and keep prejudiced beliefs. Not only will people keep their personal prejudiced beliefs, but stereotypes widely accepted in a culture (Men are better at math, Black people love fried chicken, Asian people are smart) may be seen as The Truth despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. There are few pieces of evidence-driven strategies to decrease prejudice, and even strategies that are evidence-based have shortcomings, but they are still worth implementing and improving through practice.

Counter-stereotyping involves putting stereotypes not associated with a group together; e.g. gentle black man, masculine women. It is an effective use of reducing prejudice, whether used in personal role models or media, because of the brief surprise felt by people when personal or cultural stereotypes are undercut. This surprise helps the brain reevaluate its prejudice, and hopefully, believe it less.

Prejudice, stereotypes, and heuristics are connected. Heuristics are mental “short-cuts”, which allow people to make quick, effective-enough, but maybe not accurate decisions. For example, when hearing “kindergarten teacher” most people in America have a heuristic assumption of a woman teaching. When given the term “male kindergarten teacher” it stops this automatic process, causing a brief surprise.

The research on “surprise mediating heuristics” (aka brief surprise when shown counter-stereotypes) is new but promising. The surprise is normal for any mental category combinations which are rare or unexpected, and because most stereotypes are culturally ingrained, people know which stereotypes are unexpected e.g. women mechanics, male kindergarten teachers.

The model intervention is an experiment using short media clips showing counter-stereotypes. The model intervention seems to work temporarily, but the more media clips of counter-stereotypes shown, the larger and more long-lasting their influence it.

Many experiments have been done using media (e.g. TV commercials, short film) to form a model counter-stereotype. Exposure to women in counter-stereotypical occupations (Women mechanics) reduced young girls’ stereotypes and traditional attitudes toward women directly after viewing.

A counter-stereotypical model in one domain (women mechanic) may not affect a person’s stereotypical belief about the same group in other domains (women math professors). While media models seem to have less impact than personal counter-stereotypes, seeing positive representation does have a significant impact on at least some children watching.

Whoopi Goldberg gave an example of this in an interview: “When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

While media representation is positive, personal experience with role models who perform/show counter-stereotypes leads children to have more actions that are counter-stereotypical, while children who are only shown counter-stereotypical models (a video of a woman being a CEO), will show less stereotypical beliefs briefly.

The influence of having a personal counter-stereotypical role model (My mom is a lumberjack, my favorite celebrity is a man who wears makeup) reduces prejudice faster since the duration and strength of exposer to counter-stereotype(s) is much higher.

The personal representation of counter stereotypes is hard to overstate; having women in leadership roles at university leads to female students automatically stereotyping their own gender less, while seeing women in business models only reduced children’s prejudice until they saw more traditional models (businessmen and stay at home mom models).

Most studies on personal counter-stereotypes role models focus on caregiver influences on children. Parent's counter-stereotypical occupation (Moms a doctor, Dads a nurse) helps shape their children’s’ gender stereotypes and specific career aspirations, leading daughters with counter-stereotypical mothers to more often going after counter-stereotypical occupations. Seeing their mothers do well in male-dominated fields installed a belief in the girls they could achieve the same thing. The representation of a counter-stereotype that challenged a cultural stereotype opens believing possibilities for children of minority status.

There are also many examples of counter-stereotyping being used in media to cover up the fact that other stereotypes are being consistently perpetuated. The Big Bang Theory has several female scientists in it, which is a counter-stereotype. But they immediately ruin any representation by feeding into every stereotype about high achieving women, ugly/desperate/socially clueless, or bossy/mean. The only normal/pretty/fun woman is called dumb often by every male main character. Not quite the counterstereotypes that would have a lasting positive effect.

Counter-stereotypes are a legitimate way to help reduce systematic and individual prejudice. Through exposure to personal role models who have counter-stereotypical occupations or demeanors, and in media representation.

Reducing prejudice is not as simple as passing a law or making the campus more welcoming to minorities; it is a complex and slow process that will never truly end. Through all this research and discussion one simple message rises to the top: Representation Matters.

If you want to begin your own journey to becoming less prejudiced in any way, begin by exposing yourself to more diversity. White Americans can unlearn prejudice by watching tv shows meant for black audiences. Children should have exposure to media and role-models from a variety of backgrounds. Volunteering is an easy way to get personal exposure as an adult, and feel good about yourself!

Start small, recognize your surprise, and think about where your personal prejudices come from. We can all make this world a better place; I will be volunteering at a mental hospital in 2021, and am choosing to have at least half of the tv shows I watch this year be written and/or directed by people of color.


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