Stereotypes – we all use them. Let’s look at a “typical” high school scenario. The kids who play sports (me) and work out a lot are the jocks – they must also be mean to the geeks and not very smart. The kids in the band (me) are nerdy – they are so not cool and would never be caught hanging out with the jocks. The princesses (not me) are the girls who always dress up no matter what day of the week it is or what the weather is like outside – they always date the jocks and focus more on their clothes, hair, and makeup, than on anything academic.
In some ways, stereotypes help us navigate in new situations. Whenever you go to a new place, especially one filled with a lot of people you don’t know, you look around and try to fit what you can see into the stereotypes you know. Jock, nerd, princess, cruel, sweet, smart, dumb. You do this so that you feel more at ease and so that you are better equipped should you need to speak to someone.
Ever been to a party with a friend where they know more people than you do? You will usually stand in the corner or near the food/drinks for a while and just look around. You probably are scoping things out trying to find someone who might hold similar interests as you. But the only thing you have to go on is what you see on the outside. Or maybe you know someone but all you know are the little snippets of information you’ve gotten from your friend. So you stereotype that person based on the limited information you know.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stereotypes and how they affect the people I interact with. Does the information someone knows about me cause them to stereotype me into certain categories? Do those categories make them less likely to want to spend time with me or engage in a conversation with me?
When I think about some stereotypes I might fit into I have a hard time seeing how they would ever co-exist. For example, I’m a Mormon. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Here are some typical Mormon stereotypes:
- The first thing that comes to mind when they hear the term “Mormon” is polygamy. First off, we do not follow that practice. Second, eww.
- Another thing Mormons can be stereotyped as is republicans. I don’t fit that category at all. I am definitely a liberal.
- Modest dress – absolutely. We believe that it is respectful to ourselves and to God to dress modestly. Think the cross for Catholics or the yamaka for Jews.
- No tattoos or excess piercings – we are taught to treat our body as a temple. No drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee, and tattoos. I fully believe that, too, but I have 6 tattoos and both my ears are double pierced.
It can be hard sometimes to go against the typical Mormon stereotypes. I remember a conversation being had around me with a group of lifetime members. They were talking about a gentleman they had seen who was the “typical” biker guy – tattoos, leather vest, Harley. I don’t remember the exact comments that were made but they were making it seem as though he probably wasn’t a good guy because he had tattoos and rode a motorcycle. I tried hard not to take offense to what was said because it wasn’t aimed at me, but all I could think was, “My dad fits that description and he is a big teddy bear. He rides his Harley with a chihuahua tucked into his leather jacket,” and “If I had the money I would fit that description. I would love to have more tattoos and a Harley.”
Stereotypes serve a purpose. They can help us to navigate in new social situations and allow us to find potential friends in a crowd. However, they can be used in less friendly ways, as well. I ask only that you stick with the former. Try to stay away from viewing someone you don’t know as bad based solely on appearance or limited information. I’ve had people tell me that I didn’t look like a very nice person (based solely on my appearance) or ask how I could have tattoos and be a Mormon. People are complex. There is never just one thing that defines them. I know I am not defined by a single thing. Remember that the next time you see someone and think they must be mean, bad, whatever, just because of they way they dress or the vehicle they use.