Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Social interaction and the construction of racial stereotypes

Racial stereotypes constitute more than just racial epithets and individual prejudice.  Prior assumptions about people based on their appearance, accents, possessions, or other racial markers are incorporated and institutionalized into every arena of society.  Again, life outcomes can be determined not by an individual peoples’ performance, but by how their actions are perceived by society and the response that this perception precipitates.

Perhaps there is no group that is as affected by this in the U.S. as African American males.  With higher rates of high school dropouts, incarceration, and lower life expectancy, black males have been stereotyped as criminals, dangerous, hypersexual, and even an endangered species (Ferguson, 2000).  My friends who teach in schools with black children tell me that teachers often can predict at a very early age which students will end up in jail.  I have had well-intentioned friends explain to me that the problem is the black culture, explained in terms of the matriarchy, deadbeat/absent fathers, teen pregnancy, low value placed on education, no support in the home, together with problematic family situations involving violence, drugs, alcohol, and an overwhelming poverty/welfare mentality.  With obstacles like these, my friends reason, it’s no wonder these boys are running the streets by 4th grade. How could they ever learn how to make choices like a man when they don’t have any good role models?  This explanation is deceptively appealing in that it is overly simplistic and belies the crippling effect of systemic, institutional racism on the victims of racial stereotypes.

As Ferguson (2000) explains, her critical incident occurred when she walked in as a volunteer to after-school tutoring and recreation program for “at-risk” students and realized that the students in the program were predominantly African American males (in a school with approximately 50% black students).  This realization was accompanied by the growing awareness that the teachers and staff seemed to take for granted the demographics of the “at-risk” students.  This launched her into a three-year, in-depth qualitative study that encompassed not only the elementary school environment, but the homes of several boys whom she came to know.  She spent most of her time in the school observing the comings and goings of a room she came to call the “Punishing Room.”  Through vignettes, powerful narrative, interwoven with critical analysis, Ferguson shows that the black boys she tracked were pegged as “troublemakers” before they walked in the door.  Whether the boys ended up in the “troublemaker” or “schoolboy” group involved a complicated series of choices that were not so clearly right or wrong. 

While the boys did have experience with poverty and hard knocks, Ferguson found that the families did not fit into the stereotype of the drug-infested and violent home life.  Instead, the patterns of inequitable punishment and injustice enacted in school were echoed in the families’ interactions in society with far-reaching consequences.  In this context, the choices of the boys actually seemed rather limited: maintain a sense of self-worth through resistance or conform to systematic injustice, bullying from teachers, and racial discrimination.  In contrast to the “troublemakers,” the “schoolboys” often made the choice to do what was expected of them at the cost of an internalized self-loathing.  In order to succeed in school, there is external pressure to “act white” and suppress the black part of self, which is seen as problematic and deficient. For understanding these dynamics, Bourdieu’s theories of a superior “cultural capital” and “symbolic violence,” as well as Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power are useful.  

Two other studies emphasize the harmful effects of racial stereotypes as they are constructed and reinforced through social interactions in school.  Negative stereotypes like those described by Rolón-Dow (2004) in her study of Puerto Rican adolescent girls result in frustration and apathy on the part of teachers.  Because the teachers perceived the girls as having competing interests (i.e. boys) that precluding being good students, they were more likely to shift blame onto the girls for academic failure.  On the other hand, it is important to recognize that even a seemingly positive stereotype is not benign.  Lee (1994) studied the impact of the “model-minority” stereotype on different groups of Asian students.   While stereotypes are sometimes minimized (i.e. humans need to make generalizations in order to understand the world), they carry power to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  The “model-minority” is not only harmful to other racial groups, but also to Asian people who are treated differently because of a perceived racial difference. 

Ferguson  (2000), Rolón-Dow (2004), and Lee (1994) would argue against a predisposition of certain groups to succeed or fail based on their culture.  Instead, the research indicates that institutions serve as sites for social reproduction of hierarchy and stratification that continue to benefit people with white skin. 

At one point in our conversations, my husband argued, “You can’t just blame the institutions.”  I asked him, “Why is it important for you to not blame the institutions?”  As he thought about the question, I realized the implications of these studies. If the institution is to blame, and not the individual student, then hard work and “merit” don’t come into play.  Conversely, my success or my husband’s positive experiences in school and society are not a result of a “Puritan work ethic,” pulling up the proverbial boot straps, exceeding talent or intellect, but instead the possession of the correct cultural capital and the right skin color to receive preferential treatment in our social interactions.  This is huge disturbance to the personal narrative that we tell ourselves about our own experiences. 


Ferguson, A. A. (2000). Bad boys: Public schools in the making of black masculinity. Law, meaning, and violence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lee, S. J. (1994). Behind the model-minority stereotype: Voices of high- and low-achieving Asian American students. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25, 413–429. 

Rolón-Dow, R. (2004). Seduced by images: Identity and schooling in the lives of Puerto Rican girls. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 35(1), 8–29.

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