Why Racial Stereotypes Are Not Necessarily Racist

Recently, Kevin Costner talked about the difficulty he experienced finding funding for his new racially-charged movie Black and White. Apparently Hollywood didn’t like the fact that his movie seemed to reinforce some racial stereotypes:

While the film is deeply moving, it’s also peppered with clichés—Eloise’s crack addicted and absentee black father, black crackheads hanging on a stoop in the inner city, and the wealthy white grandparents who swoop in to give the child a better life.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has rejected what it calls “racial stereotypes.” Our politically correct culture likes talking about the exceptions as if they were the norm. Hollywood shies away from talking about the common experiences of millions of people because they don’t want to reinforce politically-incorrect stereotypes (stereotypes about white Protestants are of course welcome). It’s as if they think they can change the common factual story by repeating a fictional one until it becomes common. Examples of this abound.

Here’s just one: in movies, the homosexual character (usually in a stable, committed, same-sex relationship) is nearly always the level-headed, stable counselor for the crazy heterosexuals who can’t figure it out. Though you might be able to find a few examples of stable homosexuals in reality, the fact is that it just isn’t the norm, generally speaking. Statistically, homosexuals are very very much less likely to have monogamous relationships, and the percentages say that homosexuals on average are far less stable mentally and emotionally than heterosexuals.

If you don’t like the stereotype that has been formed about your community, work to change it. But don’t lie about it. The first step toward change is accepting there’s a problem. Stereotypes and clichés have currency because of their average truth. It is possible to find a black man who is a good father, a productive tax-paying citizen, and completely free from any ties to criminal behavior. But that isn’t the norm at this time. It’s not racist to say so. It’s just unfortunately the way things are right now. And if racial stereotypes have truth in them, what are we really gaining by avoiding that truth? Wouldn’t it be better to address the norm and try to find a way to make it better?

Stereotypes, clichés, and generalizations have a bad reputation in our culture. It’s not that people don’t use them, it’s just not kosher to be open about using them. It’s easy to prove the fact that generalizations and stereotypes are prone to fallacious application and are susceptible to occasional error. But what most people are unwilling to talk about is that stereotypes are also crucial to an individual’s capacity to organize information and make decisions.

It might be fallacious to be extra careful when you’re in a “black part of town.” It’s absolutely true: just because most criminals are black, that doesn’t necessarily mean most black people are criminals. That’s logic. But good sense also tells you it’s foolish not to be cautious. The generalizations and stereotypes we have at our disposal can mean the difference between being mugged and murdered or being safe and sound. Wishful thinking can’t change that.

Nietzsche thought generalizations, though they were impossible to escape, had done serious violence to the particularity of truth. In his mind, even using a word like “tree” did violence to the reality of individual trees. But even Nietzsche couldn’t resist language—with its definitions, labels, and categories—and as soon as you are using language, you are making generalizations. It’s impossible not to. Generally speaking.

And that’s not racist or sexist or agist or whatever—necessarily. It reveals how limited human beings are that we don’t speak about things with infinitely particular nuance. That would be impossible. And even attempting it would be exhausting. Generalizations unite individual experiences into a common story—a common narrative. Generalizations and stereotypes draw together the varied experiences of individuals.

But stereotypes can also divide when they are not agreed on. As soon as I start talking about “black people” over against “white people,” I have made a division of language. But this division is still connected to a universally accepted experience. Not even the most politically correct person is going to deny that there are some people who are “black” and others we label “white.” Any more than there are some that are tall and others that are short. There are bald people, fat people, skinny people, sick people, single people, and all the rest of the categories, with their attending stereotypes.

And, again, stereotypes are stereotypes because they have some truth in them. There’s no use resenting that. Most people think fat people are lazy. That’s because most fat people are lazy. If you are fat and industrious, good for you. If you resent the stereotype, go and help other fat people be industrious. Removing the stereotype from public utterance without removing the root truth that has created the stereotype does no good. It just creates bitterness and resentment. Which creates more divisions. Which will necessarily reinforce the stereotypes. And that is what has happened with racial stereotypes in America. We’ve attempted to outlaw their public utterance without removing their root causes.

If I cite statistics about the prison population, or single-parenthood in black communities, or welfare… that’s not necessarily racist. It’s racist to say that the reason for the currently difficult realities of black culture stem directly from skin color. The realities for black culture aren’t caused by skin color. But they are still connected to it.

When Bill Cosby commented on the average realities for the black family, he was called racist. He lambasted the black community for its paternal absenteeism, its rejection of education, its lack of entrepreneurial spirit, and many other things—including the outlandish names parents sometimes give to children. Sure, he was speaking in stereotypes. And in every single instance, it would have been possible to say, “No. There are black people who don’t fit that mould. The black family next door to me has both a father and a mother in the home, there were some black scholars in my graduating class in college, Dr. Dre is a successful entrepreneur, and one of my black friends is named James—that’s not weird.”

But that doesn’t really help the many black families whose experience does fit the stereotype that Cosby was criticizing.

There doesn’t need to be any bad blood here. Why can’t black people and white people come together on this stereotype to try to fix the problem together? Why can’t we let this common experience—which evidences itself in this stereotype—guide our behavior? Why is that considered racist? My whole article here would be considered racist. But I have a heart to see this stereotype squashed through cultural transformation. The cultural blinders of political correctness will never deal with the problems in the black community because it doesn’t allow itself to see or address those problems. Without common experience, how do we achieve community? If we are trying to “bring everyone together,” we can’t reject the utility of stereotypes. Stereotypes outline divisions between categories, but they need not be divisive. When we can all come together to see a common problem, we can all come together to work on it.