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The Role of Stereotypes in the Modern World

Vague and inaccurate stereotypes knowingly dominate our society because they have the power to alter how we perceive groups of people – and they tend to persevere once they are established. Stereotypes are overexaggerated cultural identity traits – they take traits of a person belonging to a certain culture and misrepresent or categorize them. These categories are extensively depicted in the media that our society is exposed to, but the issue with this is that media is a perception of reality. Stereotypes and common misconceptions of one’s cultural identity results in biased perception and differential treatment of groups. The three readings, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” by Amy Chua, “Just Walk On By,” by Brent Staples, and “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” by Judith Cofer attempt to point out the over exaggerated biased group cultural traits for Chinese mothers, black men, and Latin women that foster the growth of stereotypes in today’s modern world. Much of what Chua, Staples, and Cofer all have in common is that although they are faced with these stereotypes they explain rather than deny that these stereotypes exist and persist. Once stereotypes are explained, hopefully society’s mindset could switch gears and get past the initial formation of negative ideas behind people’s nature when they first interact. In hopes they will soon realize that most of the time, these stereotypes do not always reflect reality truly.

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Cultural identity is a broad term that encompasses a variety of traits and elements such as: ethnicity, race, gender, age, language, religion, social class, mental/physical capabilities, and even music. African American males are strongly stereotyped based off of race while Latin women are type casted by their Hispanic ethnicity, Spanish language, and music. Chinese mothers’ entire culture seems to be judged through the stereotypes that surround them. Each of these recurring stereotypes mislead society. Negative ideas surrounding minorities are able to flourish because of the quantity of positive reflections of their culture in the media – there are not enough – at least to outweigh the negative depictions.

One stereotype attached to an African American family is that of a violent, dominant male and a ‘lazy’ mother on welfare. Black men are methodically portrayed negatively more commonly with links to crime and poverty and this has been brought to light in the modern world through multiple forms of media. What is seen in the media allows the fostering of negative one-dimensional beliefs that eventually sway racial attitudes and beliefs. Staples chronicles how he himself has come to the realization that as a colored man he has “the ability to alter public space in an ugly way” (234). This stems from the stereotypical belief that colored men are perceived as a threat when they are out walking the streets at night. Even with no intentions of wrongdoing – simply taking a walk to clear one’s mind, makes people steer clear of him patently. Similarly to Chua and Cofer, Staples goes into account about the stereotype against him rather than denying that they are a part of society. He does so when he explains,

“I understand, of course, that the danger they perceive is not a hallucination. Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence. Yet these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, against being set apart, a fearsome entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact with” (235).

The so called alienation Staples writes about is a product of the exaggeration of the thought of criminals and muggers that surround men of color because of their cultural identity. Whereas men of color are continuously misconceived in today’s society, those with prominent roles in the media attempt to use their cultural identity in a positive manner to debunk the beliefs surrounding their race. A successful example of this would be Will Smith.  Even since the abolishing of slavery, African Americans have been held close to the stereotype that states they are unintelligent. The tendency to underperform can be explained by the established term stereotype threat which means when someone is told or hears that they are not supposed to excel at something they are inclined to underdeliver. While the stereotype threat may impact the performance of African Americans and Latins it seems to work reversed roles and yield excellent results when combined with the Chinese parenting style.

Unlike the common stereotype of African Americans, Asian Americans are viewed as naturally intelligent, socially awkward, and overachievers with strict parents. The stretch of the truth behind ideals in Chinese mothers’ culture is what fosters the biased perception behind this minority and allows it to persist in today’s world. In the article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” Chua states,

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up” (403).

This quote shows Chua acknowledging the existence of these stereotypes and using her own personal story to preach the morality behind her parenting style and how it yields prosperous affluent children. She continues to accept the true facts that foster behind her stereotype. The generalization of an Asian-American, although sounds successful, can be strenuous on some children. The stereotypical Chinese mother and family expects and feels like greatness is to be owed to the parents therefore, they push to help their children strive to excel.

Often times, Asian-American characters that assimilate to a culture rather than their own are more popular in the media opposing those who embody the Asian-American identity. This is the phenomenon of “wanna-be syndrome”, assimilating into a different culture to be accepted as such in the media. A popular example of this is the gangster Leslie Chow from The Hangover. In modern media, Asian-Americans are not casted as huge lead roles which proves the point that because Leslie Chow was assimilating a culture different than his own, he was able to land the role as the lead antagonist in a very popular comedy movie. Asian-Americans inside of their cultural identity would not normally be portrayed as lead mobsters in a movie about alcoholics.

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The most common stereotype used to generalize Hispanic and Latin people is an illegal immigrant. Hispanic and Latin people are often misrepresented as either lazy or hard working labourers, this is because of the presence of Latin people working blue collar jobs like construction for example. In the writing, “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” Cofer reflects on being stereotyped – regardless of how far from her island she is and how vastly she assimilates to American culture – based on traits embedded in her cultural identity when she states the following, “Reminding me of a prime fact of my life: you can leave the island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita Moreno’s gene pool, the island travels with you” (226).

Latin and Hispanic women have been reflected in a positive manner to a certain extent in the media, but the over exaggeration of their traits in these portrayals are the cause of harsh stereotypes against Hispanic and Latin women. Popular icons like Shakira and Sofia Vergara tend to be faces for common stereotypical Latin woman. As they show the over exaggeration of Latin women being spicy and hot tamales. Ironic to Cofer’s writing, Maria from West Side Story is to be seen as innocent and virginal.

Remaining in the negative light, Latin women are often times shown to be domestic workers, housemaids, and servants. Cofer provides an anecdote in her writing where an older woman flagged her attention and waved her over to her table at the coffee shop poetry reading. Thinking she was being seen in equal eyes of humanity was not expecting the woman to order her drink wrongfully assuming she was a waitress. Cofer does an excellent job exemplifying how the traits of one’s cultural identity will follow them regardless of how far from their culture they try to flee.

In the long run, the only solution to the stereotypes that control today’s world are to as a society have a more accepting and open minded in order to reach an equilibrium. Everyone’s differing cultural identity is bound to draw up stereotypes because not everyone is the same. Those with prominent roles in the media that do embody these stereotypes have the power and ability to alter how we as media consumers perceive them. The people who produce the media we watch solely produce based on what they know and believe. Minority presence in producing media could also help redirect the perception of viewers. The commonality and overexertion of these stereotypes could be minimized in the modern world because thoughts and ideas are malleable and people have the ability to change over time. But, regardless of how minorities are portrayed in the media, until we as people become more tolerant and acceptable, stereotypes and common misconceptions of one’s cultural identity will continue to result in biased perception and differential treatment of different cultures.

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