The Truth in Stereotypes

The stereotype is in disrepute. The word is often defined in purely negative terms. Some definitions construe the stereotype as necessarily possessing the negative charge that does, indeed, energize many stereotypes. Other definitions see as inseparable from the stereotype the inappropriate application of the stereotype to those members of the stereotyped group who do not exhibit the stereotyped behavior. The problem with all such usages is that they render undiscoverable a crucial empirical fact: stereotypes have a basis in reality.

It is more fruitful to define "stereotype" without deciding its truthfulness or correctness in advance, and without including either the value judgment made by the stereotype or the implication of any cause and effect relationship. In this way we can address the correctness or incorrectness of each stereotype as an empirical question. We might define "stereotype" as "a widely held belief associating a specific temperamental or behavioral tendency with a specific group." This definition in no way denies that stereotypes usually serve functions of prejudice or power; it merely distinguishes the stereotype proper from the functions that it serves. Many beliefs about groups that are not stereotypes clearly are incorrect. "Jews have horns" and "Jews control banking" are entirely incorrect, but they are not stereotypes because they are not beliefs about temperamental...

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