I’m about to drop a thesis that some might find…a bit controversial. And that thesis is—contrary to the popular wisdom, with its talk of “invisible knapsacks” (my featured image being a visible knapsack) and “stereotype threat”, stereotypes may, in fact, be beneficial!
And not in the typical sense of stereotype formation having evolved as a quick ‘n dirty way to characterize a group of people when a more in-depth sociological profile is not an option in order to determine whether they are friend or foe.
No, I’m referring to stereotypes being beneficial to the group that is being stereotyped. As far as I can see, there’s only one benefit, but it’s a pretty concrete one: looking at the concept of “motivational resentment/hatred” (named and formulated by yours truly), stereotypes may hurt a group of people enough to change that bad behavior and motivate them to do better. In some cases, as has been seen throughout history, this can lead to an entire stereotype disappearing from the public mind!
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day last week, we can look to the Irish Diaspora as the ultimate example of this occurring. As we all know, when the Irish first came to the United States, they were indeed discriminated against and treated very poorly. While that’s certainly true, what that narrative doesn’t tell you is that…well, they didn’t exactly ingratiate themselves to the host population.
That link points out how their wantonness and criminality led to a noticeable backlash, which can be observed in how stereotypes changed: The first wave brought along with it the traditional anti-Catholic stereotypes of Protestant cultures, before shifting to stereotypes of racial inferiority.
A deliberate effort by “Dagger” John Hughes, the first Catholic archbishop of New York, served as the catalyst for a fundamental moral change which (to greatly summarize it) forced a rigid moral code upon his parishioners and made no excuses for their criminality, as well as giving them an alternate lifestyle of greater moral standing (the carrot and the stick).
And, surprise: it worked! By the 1880s, the Irish were a mere 10% of criminal arrests in New York where they had been 70% only 20 years before, and by about 1900 or so they had largely assimilated into mainstream American society. Indeed, today, many people can’t even comprehend of the Irish being a violent criminal underclass, only seeing it as an entirely irrational stereotype of our bigoted forebears.
But what if their pathologies were excused instead of admonished, as minority pathologies today are? I am of the opinion that we’d still be dealing with a Hibernian criminal underclass today. But the Irish are just one example of how “Stereotype Threat” motivated a marginalized group to be better.
Consider the case of Japanese-Americans in World War II. As their third generation descendants are fond of ceaselessly howling, the detention of 100,000 Japanese resident aliens in internment camps was born entirely from the racist stereotype of Asians being a “fifth column” disloyal to the United States, and, clearly, they would help out their racial kinsmen instead of their resident nation. And it’s likely that the Niihau Incident, in which Japanese resident aliens helped out their racial kinsmen against the United States when they crash landed on a Hawaiian island after the Pearl Harbor bombing likely influenced that decision.
Facing non-stop accusations of disloyalty, the Nisei men volunteered for duty, and as we all know the 442nd Infantry more than proved themselves in the field of both valor and loyalty to the United States, winning more Medals of Honor than any one unit in that conflict. Compare that to today, where there have been more American soldiers killed BY Muslim-American soldiers, then Muslim-American soldiers have died in the line of duty, and the media does everything in its power to make excuses for it.
(As a side note, the only other two Asian-American Medal of Honor winners, a Chinese-American and Filipino-American, also fought in World War 2, perhaps seeking to counteract another then-prevalent stereotype of Asian men, that of being dyspeptic weaklings.)
Or, to leave the United States, we can look at another minority that went above and beyond for their country to counteract disloyalty allegations: That of Jews in the Hohenzollern Empire. Long accused of being unpatriotic AND dyspeptic weaklings, German Jews before and during World War 1 were, in fact, OVER-represented in front line combat roles, leading to ~100,000+ of this minority dying in the trenches of the Western front. Compare that to European Jews today who genuinely seem to hate their countries and welcome their and their gentile neighbor’s displacement by “refugees”.
Ignoring the military, look at how African-American public figures (and really the entire population) acted in days of widespread discrimination and constantly being under scrutiny, compared to how they act now where the media runs interference for them at every opportunity.
These are just a few examples of stereotypes being used to positive effect, albeit through “negative feedback”. You might ask if I am, in fact, suggesting that people become more racist—not quite. However, running interference for pathologic populations is clearly not helping either.
Instead, I would suggest that history is taught in all its nuance to remind certain groups of how they were once stereotyped, and how their ancestors went out of their way to overcome them. Perhaps that would inspire them to follow their example instead of engaging in the Oppression Olympics. And for problem groups today, I certainly don’t recommend the crude and sometimes violent prejudice that existed in the past. Rather, report their behavior honestly and fairly, prosecute any criminal behavior from either them or those that may discriminate against them (while remembering that mere prejudice is NOT a crime), and perhaps self-improvement can once again occur over an entire population.
After all, combatting stereotypes worked pretty good for me!