How to Avoid Stereotypes
- Check your assumptions. Most stereotypes are not supported by statistical evidence. If you have a belief about some group, check into it! Figure out if it’s really accurate. Nine times out of ten, you’ll discover that it’s not.
- Don’t generalize. Even if there is statistical evidence behind a stereotype, it’s still a mistake to assume that it’s always true. As we saw with the example about the elderly lady, a stereotype can be true in the majority of cases and still have counter-examples. Just because someone is older doesn’t mean that they have grandchildren; just because someone has light skin and red hair doesn’t mean that they’re Irish; just because someone comes from a foreign country doesn’t mean they speak bad English, etc.
- If possible, discuss your work with a member of the group you’re talking about. In general, it’s best to write in dialogue with the people you’re writing about. If you want to write about Irish culture, your research process should include at least a couple of conversations with people who grew up Irish. If you want to write about the Jewish faith, consider speaking to as many Jews as possible before drawing conclusions.
- But don’t put too much stock in inside views. Just because somebody belongs to a certain group doesn’t mean they know everything about that group. Their perspective is still just one person’s perspective, after all. In addition, people can easily self-stereotype: just like anyone else, they’re exposed to stereotypes of their own group, and this can influence their perceptions.
When to Avoid Stereotypes
Stereotypes are never a good thing – they’re equally bad in both creative writing and formal essays. The one acceptable place for a stereotype is in satire (though even here you have to be careful). Satire is all about challenging expectations, and in order to do that you have to play with people’s expectations. In satire, for example, you might have a character who fulfills a certain stereotype, but is aware of it and comments on it as a stereotype (Dave Chapelle’s joke in Examples of Stereotypes in Popular Culture is a good non-fiction example of this). Alternatively, you might have a character who initially appears to fulfill a stereotype, but actually doesn’t. If written carefully, a story like that could show readers how “gullible” they are when it comes to stereotypes.