Stereotypes and Labels

As I was sitting down pondering what to write about, a situation came up at work that I had to break away and deal with. As I was working through a few problems, a co-worker said something to me that left me completely startled:

"What, do you think you're special? You're not."

Most of the time I am the quickest person in the room with a sharp, argument-closing comeback. But this was one of only a handful of comments that has ever left me literally speechless. And like each other time that has happened, I had to spend some time thinking about why. What was it about that comment that hit me so hard that I was unable to snap back? Then, at about 3:47am today, it hit me.

I'm NOT special, at least insofar as I am entitled to be treated better because of my education, experience, job title, or salary. But I AM special in virtually every other way. I am different, I am quirky, I am moody, and I am sometimes a giant mystery wrapped up in an enigma. But I AM special, and there is no one quite like me anywhere in the world. And while I am not entitled to anything because of my job title, I do deserve to be treated well for who I am inside.

We ALL do.

But that doesn't mean it always happens that way.
I mean, the world is a pretty complicated place, no? It's filled with excitement, uncertainty, joy, and sometimes peril. Over the years, I have developed my own set of schemas that help me make sense of the world. Schemas are very interesting things; if you're not familiar with the word or the history of the study of schemas, check out the schema page on Wikipedia for a quick introduction. At their simplest, schemas are our views of the world which we develop over time and with experience, and which help us to make sense of complex issues. They help us take that which we have already "learned" and store away how we feel about it, so that we do not have to rethink every aspect of a problem each time we encounter it. This is, as you might guess, extremely useful. For example, many of us have behavioral schemas based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. These tell us, among other things, that murder, stealing, and lying are wrong. We absorb these ideas, and they become part of our own "world view" so we don't have to rethink whether or not we should kill the driver that cut in front of us, or steal that dress we see in the window. We already know that we can not; our schemas tell us so, and we can move on to consider other solutions that help us get what we want (such as flipping the driver off, and paying for the dress with our AMEX.) These schemas help to give us a sense of purchase on a life of slippery slopes, enabling us to hold ground as our world changes around us. As such, they can be extremely comforting.

But holding ground in a changing world can also be dangerous. Schemas can offer us a false sense of security because they can lead us to blindly follow that which leaves us comfortable as opposed to allowing us to question the validity of that comfort in the face of growth and change. In order to change, to adapt, and to grow, we have to look beyond our schemas, sometimes letting go and sliding down the mountain a bit in order to get a different view and engage in our lives in a different manner. Overall, though, I am generally fond of a good, reliable schema.

Now, schemas are one thing - but stereotypes and labels are something entirely different. A stereotype is, by definition, a simplified conception or belief about a group of people which is based on some prior assumptions. Many psychologists believe that both stereotyping and labeling is unavoidable; after all, the alternative is to meet every situation at its face, to consider people and their behaviors and actions as discreet and unique. That is thoroughly overwhelming to most folks. If you've ever lived in a large metropolitan area, I bet you know what I am talking about. You avoid walking or driving through certain parts of town because the area is run down. You choose longer routes rather than get on certain bus lines so you can avoid known problem areas. You move to other side of the street when you see a shadowy figure approach. You do this for expediency, because to sit down and consider each person you encounter at face value would take way too long and be far too onerous. So you set up rules that, on their surface, help you make quicker choices. But the rules also allow you the easy out of being able to make assessments and judgments without actual knowledge.

Stereotypes are with us or around us, like it or not.

But the fact that they are ubiquitous doesn't make them healthy. In fact, stereotyping and labeling can be downright destructive, for two primary reasons. First of all, the impressions about an individual that are provided by a stereotype are generally wrong. Humans are complex animals, and the differences between individual people can be mind boggling. Even when an individual person shares critical characteristics - physical, emotional, socio-economic, religious, racial - with millions of other people, those shared characteristics make up a relatively small percentage of what makes that person unique and distinguishable. Even through strict mathematical probability, there is no way we could truly understand a person by such relatively simple characteristics as racial or gender identification. Don't believe me? How about if I say that all neat men are gay, or vice versa? How about if I say that people who speak Spanish in the workplace are wetbacks? Or that all women get bitchy at "that time of the month?" If you still don't believe me, give me a call and we'll walk through some other examples of how we routinely disrespect individual uniqueness through stereotypes. Either that, or watch about five minutes of network commercials.

So using a stereotype can be bad because it denies us the ability to get to know someone as an individual person. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. It also denies the individual the right to be assessed and judged as a unique and special person. Imagine, if you can, what that must feel like. All of the amazing, quirky, wonderful, unusual things you do - your passions, your interests, your challenges, your experiences - in short, the things that MAKE YOU YOU - will go completely unconsidered. If you believe, as I do, that all of our experiences in life make us who we are today, then it becomes clear that people who fail to appreciate our experiences will never truly come to know us. That is sad. But what is far worse is what this type of stereotyping is likely to do to me over time. It is possible that whatever behaviors are attributed to me based on a stereotype may be reinforced so often, and to such a degree, that I find it easier to live up to these low expectations than to fight my way through them every time. And, over time, I may come to believe these judgments myself, losing both a sense of hope and a sense of my own individuality in the process. What a shame that would be, how destructive - and how avoidable, if only we could take the time to set stereotypes aside and get to know people for who they really are.

We stereotype based on age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, you name it. But as tough as this can be for adults, I think it is even more difficult for children. Think for a minute about all of the stereotypes we have about kids, and the labels we then pin on them. Toddlers with unmet needs are deep in the "terrible twos", with little thought to the reasons behind their behavior or possible ways to help them feel more centered and comfortable in a world of quantum change. Kids who are overweight are viewed as lazy, and lazy kids are viewed as burdensome and incapable of success. Children with multiple interests are assumed to lack the focus to pursue just one thing; kids who are quiet are thought to be shy; and children who enjoy comics or gaming are thought to be nerds. These types of labels (and there are hundreds of them) are destructive because they reduce the complex beauty and wonder of an amazing child into pithy cocktail-napkin statements. Behind each stereotype and each label is an underlying assumption that all kids who like certain things behave in the same ways, and that all children who have certain skills will achieve similar results. It's the ultimate show of disrespect - treating any person, especially a child, in a way that minimizes or ignores their individuality. Even labels that most of us feel "good about", such as "pretty", "strong", "smart", and "artistic", can end up dehumanizing our children when they become the words we use to describe our kids to others, with no thought to considering the whole child as opposed to their performance or looks.

I believe that we are all more than our stereotypes, and more than our labels. For example, I am not an Unschooler; I am a man who believes in the principles behind unschooling and is committed to applying those to various aspect of my life when it makes sense to do so. But I am also a father, a partner, a friend, who has hundreds of interests and several passions, most of which hardly anyone knows about. I could spend all day working with MS Excel or reading a book about dams, and I could just as easily spend all day laughing with friends or walking with my family. And just like everyone else - adult or child, black or white, rich or poor - I am so much more than my stereotypes would indicate, and so much more than any label could capture. I am special.

And I bet you - and your kids -are, too.


  1. I like it Jeff :)
    You always put things so well.

  2. How sad that anyone would ever even ask that question. If we all could see just exactly how special each of us really are the world would be a different and much better place!

  3. Thank you for a great post. Many self-identified progressives love to lambast stereotypes but rarely do so with regard to those perpetuated against children.

    On another note, I have a few friends who want to read your work because I speak of it so highly. How can I help them access your stuff?

  4. Great post! So many of my thoughts I have had written out so well by you! Thank you.

  5. -=- We already know that we can not; our schemas tell us so-=-

    ♪ Jesus loves me, this I know ♫
    For my Schema tells me so ♪

  6. As usual Jeff, you have written another provocative and beautiful post. Thank you.

    Oh, and Sandra, thank you (with sarcasm) as now I shall be singing your Schema song in my head for a bit - at least, we hope it is only in my head.

  7. "If you still don't believe me, give me a call and we'll walk through some other examples of how we routinely disrespect individual uniqueness through stereotypes. Either that, or watch about five minutes of network commercials." CLASSIC.