I’ll never forget the time when, as a post-graduate teaching associate, I discovered that I had been guilty of stereotyping. There was a blonde-haired student in one of my classes, someone who sat at the back of the class and, by the provocative way that she dressed, seemed to fit to a T the stereotype of the dumb blonde. I wrote her off as a student who wasn’t serious and as we entered the last month of the semester, I still hadn’t learned her name. One evening toward the end of the teaching semester, I was reading student essays when I came across a brilliant paper from a student whose name I didn’t recognize. I took it to the next class with glowing comments on it, and began to call out students’ names as I returned their papers. To my surprise and shame, the writer of the exceptional essay had been that nameless “blonde” in the back row.
Now I began to sit up and take notice. Sure enough, everything that came across my desk from her was stamped with the same brilliance that it had taken me nearly 10 weeks to recognize. Her final paper offered an explanation I hadn’t considered. As a child, my student had been abused by a close male relative. Somehow, despite her intelligence, she continued to present herself as a knowing and precocious little girl, dressed to please men. And this self-presentation, reinforcing as it did the prevalent stereotype, effectively masked the articulate, intellectually sophisticated, deeply hurt young woman underneath.
I hope that I learned a lasting lesson that semester. Ever since, I have worked hard to refrain from labeling my students, no matter how much they might play to my prejudices.
We all know the tendency within ourselves, in society at large, and in the mass media, to fall prey to stereotyping whole groups of people, seeing all members of that group as cast from the same mold. Whether the stereotyped images are perceived to be positive or negative, stereotyping is harmful, since it oversimplifies—and inevitably, dehumanizes—the multifaceted and continually shifting complexities that make up a human being.
Social psychologists tell us that we engage in stereotyping because society continually bombards us with stereotyped images, especially through the mass media, that reinforce the dominant ideology. They also explain that stereotyping is a quick, convenient, even at times, life-saving, means of gaining information about a person. In our prehistoric past, a stranger’s external features and trappings could identify him or her as an ally or as member of a hostile tribe. Presumably one could kill first, ask questions later. The alarming numbers of police killings of persons of color in the United States today are a terrible result of such racial profiling—stereotyping by another name.
It turns out that the words ‘stereotype’ and ‘stereotyping’ have their origins in letterpress printing. Here is the definition and description of the process of stereotyping on the website of The Museum of Printing in North Andover, Massachusetts.
STEREOTYPING: For large (or repeated) runs of books or newspapers, neither hot-metal machine-composition type nor hand-composed foundry type is ideal. Having large quantities of type metal in standing forms is expensive inventory; also both kinds of type wear (machine comp wears faster than the harder foundry, but the wear on foundry is capital depreciation). In addition, only one press can print the result of one composition; to have multiple presses running hand comp would require multiple settings (and multiple errors and proofings). The solution to this problem is the stereotype (or in French, the cliché), by which each multi-page form, in a special chase, is cast into a solid thin metal plate, which may be printed either upon patent bases on standard presses or on rotary presses built for stereo plates. Multiple plates can thus be made from one setting (hence stereo); and once the plates are made, the type can be distributed or melted for reuse. Mats taken from the type form can be expressed to remote sites for casting, allowing coordinated advertising and syndicated copy without resetting.
A stereotype, then, was originally a “‘solid plate of type metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould (called a flong)
taken from the surface of a forme of type’ used for printing instead of the original” (OED Vol. 9, qtd. in Wikipedia). So the casting of type into metal plates enabled printers to save time and money, protect valuable type from wear, and make multiple copies from an original simultaneously in different locations. In English, these metal plates were called stereotypes; in French, clichés.
Interesting, isn’t it? A stereotype is a shortcut in time and money that allows for the mass production of an image, the danger being the widespread dissemination of a single image, quite likely at the expense of others. A cliché is a well-worn image or phrase that loses meaning and accuracy because of its overuse.
In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell described clichés as worn-out and useless metaphors, pre-fabricated phrases, short-cuts that sacrifice freshness, accuracy, and meaning itself. “A lump of verbal refuse,” he called every last one of them, that should be thrown “into the dustbin where it belongs.”
Today, with the dominance of digital typesetting, offset printing, and online publishing, printing stereotypes have largely been rendered obsolete (thank goodness for The Museum of Printing and others like it). But sadly the mental short-cut of stereotyping our fellow human beings is still very much alive. Let’s cast it into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.