Stereotypes frequently show up in written and scripted material and are largely the reason many of the plays and movies written in the early twentieth century are problematic. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess draws heavily from the traditional minstrel shows popular before and during his lifetime, that were rife with the negative stereotypes reflected in Gershwin’s opera. The early radio show Amos and Andy that yielded the fifties’ television show of the same name not only trafficked in negative stereotypes, the two lead actors on radio were white Southerners portraying themselves as Black, drawing on the stilted views common to that time.
Stereotypes persist because for many, it’s easier to categorize people when they exhibit certain easily identifiable characteristics. This allows one to make snap judgements and dismiss arguments based on biased reasoning rather than validity. “Of course you believe that; you’re a liberal.” Mention the word “ghetto” and one immediately associates the term with a particular minority despite the fact that ghettos can house many types of people, such as the Warsaw Ghetto which mainly consisted of Jews living under an increasingly intolerant society in the build up to the Nazis’ Final Solution.
People like to believe our ancestors were far more enlightened than they actually were. Racism is still a reality in our time. It makes no sense that people living in a less sophisticated environment, who were constantly confronted with people being held as slaves, would have a more enlightened view of them. Whether or not average people owned slaves is irrelevant. They still would have believed the common justifications for them. Georgia’s Declaration of Succession states that Blacks are regarded as inferior and that if provisions for slavery not been included in the Constitution, the South never would have ratified it. They justify holding Blacks as slaves because they came from a hot climate and were better adapted to the conditions under which they would be working. That is from people who were alive at the time and commenting on their everyday reality, not someone looking back from a hundred and fifty years later trying to justify building Rebel monuments and flying the Confederate battle flag.
I wish I could claim more enlightened status, but I have also dealt in negative stereotypes as well, more so when I was in high school and college, though that is not a justification. Often I did it to amuse others who I felt held similar views. I should have known better, given that I grew up in a neighborhood and school where I was in the minority for a time, and have always had teachers and other authority figures around me who were Black most of whom I highly respected. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes and I have tried to learn from mine. An important lesson I’ve learned is to reserve judgment and not comment indiscriminately on situations I find myself in. On several occasions, remembering this probably saved me from embarrassing gaffes. I used to have a phrase “In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead anyway” that I almost used in the presence of someone who had recently lost a spouse.
Southerners are always portrayed as holding negative views of people of color, while being confronted on a regular basis by evidence which proves these views to be wrong. In fact, most people are contemptuous of entire races of people, while excusing members of that race who are friends, as though they’re exceptions to the rule. My observation has been that most people are hard working, community oriented, and devoted to family and friends, and these traits are common to all races, religions, and creeds. There are quite a few cosmetic differences between various groups, but there’s far more commonality than many are willing to admit.
Despite this, there are stark differences in how each group is treated within society and the dominant culture in the US still has a long way to go to realize how much this diminishes the quality of life for those affected. Communication and understanding are the starting points for better awareness but recognizing and acknowledging the problem is vital to addressing it. Aside from that, it’s necessary to confront negative views whenever encountered. There exists a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among white males not to call out derogatory comments or jokes made by others, but in doing so, we tacitly agree with the view represented.
While it is true that certain individuals within a group exhibit behaviors attributed to stereotypes, it is equally true that many others don’t. To define someone based solely upon a handful of traits ignores the complex individual existing just below the surface. Taking the time to get to know someone and see beyond the stereotype is the first step in dispelling those misconceptions. A writer would never rely on one or two traits to define a character neither should we allow such a limited view color our ideas of those around us.