Harmful Psychological Effects of Racial Stereotyping

Racial stereotyping involves a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a particular group of people based on their race. And while some people say things like, “I don’t stereotype anyone based on their appearance,” the truth is that everyone does it.

Your brain creates mental shortcuts as a way to help you rapidly respond to situations based on past experiences, thus leading to stereotypes. But these shortcuts are generalizations and are rarely accurate assessments of an individual or group. They’re what’s known as a “cognitive bias.”

Once you establish these beliefs, it’s difficult to change your way of thinking. This is because you’ll unintentionally look for evidence that affirms your beliefs and discounts any evidence to the contrary.

When left unchecked, stereotypes may lead to discriminatory behavior. Acknowledging stereotypes, however, and the psychological impact they can have is the first step in breaking down those beliefs.

How Stereotypes Are Formed

When you encounter someone, you make split-second judgments based on that individual’s appearance. Within an instant, your brain is trying to help you determine whether an individual is trustworthy and safe, or whether they likely pose some sort of emotional, social, or physical risk. And these judgments will affect how you feel and how you act.

Many of your stereotypes were developed when you were a child. Here’s how some generalizations about race can likely be formed:

  • When your teachers showed you famous scientists and historical figures, what race were most of the examples? 
  • When you watched crime stories on the news, what race did you see most often?
  • How did your parents talk and interact with people of other races?
  • How did your family treat people who were the same race as them?
  • Who were your childhood heroes? 
  • What race were most of your favorite sports figures?  
  • Were the entrepreneurs, celebrities, and musicians you liked mostly a certain race?
  • How do advertisers portray certain races? 
  • Who tends to appear in magazines or advertisements as the ideal standard of beauty? 
  • Do you see certain types of people being portrayed as smart? Wealthy? Healthy?

The media messages you receive as well as the interactions you have with others influence how you view people based on their race. 

Racial Subtype Stereotypes

When most people think of racial stereotypes, they think of an entire race being grouped together. But research shows we tend to categorize people according to their subtype. 

For example, someone might have a very different stereotype of “black men” versus “black women.” Other subtypes might include “black athletes” or “white businessmen.”

It’s important for individuals to consider how they categorize people into subtypes and what stereotypes they may hold about these groups in general.

How Your Stereotypes Impact Your Emotions

The way you think about other people affects how you feel and how you behave. 

A person’s race may affect the emotional response you have when that individual:

  • Walks past you
  • Sits next to you
  • Approaches you
  • Strikes up a conversation with you

Your emotional responses may range from anxiety and apprehension to relief or pity. 

How Stereotypes Influence Your Behavior

Your stereotypes affect how you behave as well. Here are some examples:

  • When you’re reviewing resumes, the candidates’ names may influence whether you contact them. Names that make you think someone is part of a certain group or race may attract you while other names may deter you.
  • You might walk to the other side of the street when you see individuals from a certain group approaching you.
  • You might choose a seat in class or when using public transportation based on what people look like. 

Microagressions

Stereotypes are also likely to lead to microaggressions. Here are some examples:

  • Asking someone from another race where they are from as if to imply they must not be American.
  • Saying, “You’re so articulate,” because you’ve stereotyped individuals of a particular race to be inarticulate.
  • Assuming someone of a particular race has a certain occupation.

Being Stereotyped Affects Decision-Making

Individuals on the receiving end of stereotyping are also impacted emotionally and behaviorally.

A 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough found that stereotypes can have a lasting negative impact on those who experience them.

In one study, participants had to perform a task in the face of negative stereotyping. After participants were removed from the situation, researchers measured their ability to control their aggression, eat appropriate amounts, make rational decisions, and stay focused.

The results showed people were more likely to be aggressive after they were stereotyped. They were also more likely to lack self-control and had trouble making good decisions. And they were even more likely to overindulge on unhealthy foods.

Being Stereotyped Can Lead to Self-Stereotyping

Research has also found that individuals who are stereotyped may begin to act in a stereotypical fashion because they want to be more included in their group.

Self-stereotyping can be a way for individuals in a certain group to band together when they feel as though they are “low status.” It may help them experience some cohesion.

Consequently, negative stereotypes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A child who has grown up being taught that people of his race engage in illegal activity, for example, is more likely to so during his lifetime.

Building Awareness

Recognizing your stereotypes and the potential damage they do is the first step in creating change. Fortunately, you can take steps to change harmful stereotypes.

  • Have compassion for yourself. It's not your fault that you have stereotypes—they likely developed in the context of society and social networks that you largely had no control over in your early years.
  • Educate yourself. Make an ongoing commitment to educate yourself on the different types of bias and racism.
  • Pay attention to the stereotypes you see in the media. Becoming more aware of them will open your eyes to how often these beliefs are reinforced. This said, it's also important to take breaks as constant exposure to stereotypes in the news and on social media can be harmful.
  • Breakdown your stereotypes. Monitor the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reinforce your beliefs, and choose to look for the truth about people.
  • Work to reduce the stereotypes you portray to others. Be conscious of the posts you make on social media and the conversations you hold with others. Make an effort to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes.
  • Connect with "safe people." Having a support network of family, friends, or mentors can help you work through your emotions and better cope with any outcomes.
  • Stay grounded. Incorporate activities like yoga and medication into your daily life.
  • Decide what's best for you. If you’re on the receiving end of a stereotype, acknowledge how it affects you. This may mean speaking up, or it may also mean simply acknowledging it to yourself.
  • Seek support. A mental health professional can help you identify and develop strategies to better deal with negative stereotypes/biases.
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