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3.5: Stereotyping, Microaggressions, and Bias

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    Stereotyping is the opposite of seeing a person as an individual. There are many reasons that humans may depend on stereotyping: We engage in hundreds (sometimes thousands) of interpersonal interactions in a given day and need to be efficient; humans are wired for survival, and quick judgments upon first meeting others are meant to protect us from those who may be dangerous; humans register basic information about others’ faces in milliseconds after first meeting them (Willis & Todorov, 2006). Perhaps it is only natural for humans to make judgments about these faces (and the people who wear them), given our natural tendency to scan and inspect new visual information.

    No matter the reason, humans seem to have a natural propensity to stereotype others upon first meeting them. Stereotyping involves seeing someone primarily as a member of a group as opposed to an individual, and assuming that the person shares all social, cultural, and behavioral traits with others in that group. In this section we explore both the processes involved in stereotyping and the effects.

    Schemas and Scripts

    If you think about the human brain like a computer, you can imagine that information storage is an important part of the brain’s function. On a computer, there are file folders, within which we can store relevant files. In the human brain, scientists posit that there is a similar situation. Schemas are like file folders or categories, where relevant memories, experience, and knowledge about a specific subject area are stored. For example, you might have a schema for Thanksgiving. Within the schema, you might have memories of air travel, eating turkey, gathering with relatives, Uncle James drinking a little too much, laughter, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Any time one of these memories is triggered by a new stimulus (e.g., a television commercial showing a large family gathering), your “Thanksgiving” schema will be triggered. You may incorporate new information into this schema or, based on how well this new information “fits in” with what is already included, decide that it does not belong.

    Scripts (also called event schemata) are sequences of events related to a specific schema. Most people have a script for taking an elevator. A typical elevator script might go something like this:

    1. I press the elevator button and wait.
    2. The elevator door opens.
    3. I step into the elevator, then turn around to face the elevator door.
    4. I do not engage in conversation with others on the elevator.
    5. When the elevator reaches my floor, the door opens and I exit.

    We like when actual events follow our scripts (or expectations of how the event will go); humans become uncomfortable when any part of the script is violated. For example, let’s say one day you wait for the elevator, but when you step inside, everyone else is facing away from the door. In this case, it would be confusing to know whether you should follow what the others in the elevator are doing or whether you should face the door as you always do.

    Elevator sign with two arrows pointing up and down
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Going Up! by Clyde Robinson licensed as CC BY 2.0


    Remember back to Section 3.4 in this chapter, where we discussed how race, gender, age, sexuality, and ability affect perception? In the United States, and in many other societies, there is a social structure that provides power and access to some people—based on race, gender, age, sexuality, and ability—while denying access and power to others. The word power here implies the processes of privileging, normalizing, and valuing certain identities over others. This definition of power highlights the ways in which culture works in the creation and privileging of certain categories of people. Power in US society is organized along the axes of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age, nation, and religious identities. Some identities are more highly valued, or more normalized, than others—typically because they are contrasted to identities thought to be less valuable or less “normal.” Thus, identities are not only descriptors of individuals, but also grant a certain amount of collective access to the institutions of social life. It is important to understand that some people have more or less power than others in our society, due to their race, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or ability.

    Three friends, who appear to be of different ethnicities, having a conversation on a college campus
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash.

    A microaggression is a statement or action that is made by a person with more power and privilege and delivered to a person who has less power and privilege. For example, an able-bodied interviewer might say to an interviewee using a wheelchair: “I’m impressed that you got here on time.” Notice that the statement itself may not seem offensive at all. According to Derald Wing Sue, who coined the term, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults. ... Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communication” (Sue, et al., 2007) The statement “I’m impressed that you got here on time” carries the implication that due to using a wheelchair, the interviewee may have more difficulty navigating the travel from home to the office where the interview is held. Although this may be the case, the wheelchair user may hear the message that the interviewer has low expectations of their performance, before they have even had an opportunity to discuss the job itself.

    It may not be obvious when you deliver a microaggression. However, if someone lets you know they felt diminished or harmed by a statement that you have made, this is an opportunity to apologize and move forward. Our first reaction to being told we have made a microaggression may be defensiveness. This is especially true given that microaggressions may be unintentional and ambiguous. However, taking responsibility and apologizing for a microaggression allows both people who participated in the interaction to heal their relationship. Here are three steps to apologize for a microaggression:

    1. Take responsibility. If you need more information about how your statement or action negatively impacted the other person, it’s OK to ask. Allow the other person to clearly explain their perspective—and take it seriously.
    2. Apologize with sincerity and acknowledge how the microaggression may have impacted the other person. For example: “I’m sorry that my statement made you feel I don’t value or respect you.”
    3. Let the other person know you want to repair the relationship and move forward. Working through a microaggression can feel awkward and embarrassing for both parties. A simple statement can be helpful to let the other person know you want to move forward: “I appreciate that you were honest with me about how my statement negatively impacted you. Please let me know, in the future, if I cross any lines or say something insensitive or disrespectful.”

    Reflection Questions

    1. What microaggressions do you experience in your day-to-day interactions with your friends, classmates, fellow employees, teachers, managers, family members, etc.?
    2. Reflecting back, what microaggressions have you verbally or nonverbally expressed toward others?
    3. Have you ever clutched your purse, bag, or wallet when a person of a specific race, gender, nationality, or age walks by you?
    4. What are ways you can combat microaggressions using communication?
    5. How can you challenge your own microaggressions?

    Stereotype Threat

    “Stereotype threat is being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group.” Coined by researchers Steele and Aronson (1995), the term stereotype threat refers to the effects that negative stereotypes have on the people who are members of specific groups. The original study (conducted with Stanford University undergraduates) looked at how Black and White students scored on an exam in two different scenarios. In Scenario 1, the students were told that the exam would rate their intellectual ability. In Scenario 2, students were instead told that the exam was a “laboratory problem-solving task” and not diagnostic of intellectual ability. To further distance participants from having the negative stereotype triggered in Scenario 2, participants were asked to “please take this challenge seriously even though we will not be evaluating your ability.”

    The results of the study clearly demonstrated the negative effects of stereotype threat. When presented with Scenario 1, where students were told intellectual ability was being measured, Black students scored significantly lower than White students. However, with Scenario 2, which used the same exact test, but indicated the exam was a way to measure problem-solving (not intellectual ability), there was not a significant difference in test scores by race. Although stereotype threat is not 100% responsible for testing variability between students who identify with different racial backgrounds, it does partially explain why people from groups that society places negative stereotypes on often underperform on tests that measure academic aptitude (Sackett, et al., 2004).

    Listen to this Podcast on Stereotype Threat
    Man's face covered with various post-it notes that read: "Norms," "Expectations," and "Society."

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Stereotype Threat by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

    This podcast from Hidden Brain Media talks about how the stereotypes we hold impact every part of our lives, from parent–teacher conferences to workplace interviews, all the way to romantic relationships. Please listen to the podcast linked below, or read the transcript that appears on the podcast's web page.

    Podcast: How They See Us | Hidden Brain Media

    Now, use the Reflection Questions to have an immersive small group, classroom, or discussion board conversation.

    Reflection Questions
    1. The podcast begins with a story that describes when Claude Steele (the person being interviewed) first realized that he, as a Black person, was treated differently. Think about your various human identities: gender, socio-economic status, race, sexuality, nationality, ability, education, kin, etc. Discuss a time when you were treated differently, due to one of your human identities. You may have been treated better, worse, differently, etc. What happened and what did you experience?
    2. Thinking of college and academia, what types of stereotypes are highlighted through the course content, assignments, lectures, and readings, etc.
    3. What ways could college and universities be more inclusive and break away from stereotypes?
    4. Did any of the stories and information within the Podcast resonate with you? Could you relate to any of the stories? How has the Podcast adjusted your understanding of perception?

    Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat

    Importantly, stereotype threat occurs not only across racial identity, but also with gender, sexuality, age, disability, and even ethnicity and religion. Recently, there has been more research devoted to strategies for reducing the effects of stereotype threat in academic settings. Beyond removing terms that trigger the stereotype, empirically validated research suggests that the following is helpful:

    • Emphasize the value of diversity (Purdie-Vaughns, et al., 2008).
    • Improve minority representation, especially when there's underrepresentation in that specific field (Carrell et al., 2010; Dee, 2004; Massey & Fischer, 2005).
    • Highlight that classroom tests are for the purpose of facilitating learning, as opposed to measuring ability (Good et al., 2008; Spencer et al., 1999; Steele & Aronson, 1995).
    • Make students aware of stereotype threat and work with them to attribute the anxiety brought on by this social-psychological condition to the stereotype threat itself, rather than other internal factors (Johns, et al., 2005; Johns, et al., 2008).

    Implicit Bias and Discrimination

    Human beings value a sense of belonging. We enjoy being members of a group, where we are treated with respect and kindness. At times, people become attached to their group in such a way that they believe the group they belong to is better than other groups. If you think about it, this is pretty normal in some scenarios. For example, if you play on a baseball team, you and your teammates may talk about your team members’ talents, while dismissing the players on the other team. In this scenario, you can see how this would boost team morale. Unfortunately, in the real world, this type of thinking often goes beyond cognitive considerations or conversations. People may exhibit bias, or “attitudes, behaviors, and actions that are prejudiced in favor of or against one person or group compared to another” in how they treat others, when those others come from a different group (US Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.).

    Bias can be explicit, meaning the people who hold these attitudes are conscious that they have these beliefs. However, bias can also be implicit. Implicit bias occurs when people favor one group over another, in thoughts and actions, however, they are unaware that this bias exists. Bias often occurs in societies where there is a majority group that is more powerful than a less powerful cultural minority group. When the group who has power uses laws, rules, or actions to hurt, diminish quality of life, or take power away from a group who lacks power, this is called discrimination. The United States has a long history of discriminating against Black and Brown people. Beginning in 1619, the United States kidnapped, sold, and enslaved people from Africa. Slavery, which included horrific traumas such as rape, separation of families, erasure of family history, and murder, was legal until the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Slavery continued in some parts of Texas through June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, when Federal troops ensured that any remaining enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were set free. Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday in 2021.

    This page titled 3.5: Stereotyping, Microaggressions, and Bias is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Hilary Altman & Alex Mata (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .