We've all done it. We've all looked at someone else and formed an opinion about them based solely on what we see. Blacks, whites, Jews, old, young, rich, poor, Mexican, Arabic, Muslim, Christian and the list could go on. Stereotyping people is nothing new and chances are pretty damn good you've practiced it several times already today in some shape, form or fashion. Stereotyping is a natural part of our makeup. We take information, be it aural, visual, olfactorily, or tactile or even information from some previous encounter that has embedded itself in our brain, whatever the source - we make decisions based on that information. Stereotyping is not necessarily a bad thing. Using an oft cited example to illustrate, suppose you are walking down a street and a group of leather-clad, rough looking men are hanging out and talking around their motorcycles on one side of the street, but the other side of the street is populated by women pushing babies in strollers, men are dressed in suits and a couple of priests are talking. You have to go down the street on one side or the other. Chances are pretty good you're going to choose the side of the street with the babies, businessmen and priests.The reason you choose that side is stereotyping. It doesn't matter to you that the bikers on the other side of the street are actually gathering at the start of a benefit ride to raise money for a child they don't know who is dying of cancer. You made your decision based on a stereotype.
Stereotyping is a method of making a judgement based on current knowledge and/or previous experience. That knowledge may be in error OR it could be based on fact. Either way it is playing the percentages. Insurance companies do it every day. You may be the most economical driver in the world and always careful to go the speed limit but the second you shell out the money for that hot new Dodge Challenger or Charger your insurance is going to go through the roof. Why? Because insurance actuaries have stereotyped you as a speed demon eager to do the quarter mile against every car next to you at a stoplight - simply because you are driving a muscle car. It may not be fair but the insurance company is playing the percentages.
Author Ninos Malek has an excellent article on his blog that illustrates this even better. You can read it here.
In recent years another form of stereotyping has often made headlines: Racial Profiling. Whenever racial profiling is mentioned it is unfairly heralded as a negative. Truth is though, racial profiling is stereotyping. It shouldn't be seen as racist but as a logical tool in authorities arsenal to prevent crime and terrorism or to catch criminals and terrorists. Sure it can be maddening, even insulting if you're on the receiving end of profiling but in the interest of bringing a criminal to justice or preventing a terrorist act it is more than justifiable. A low-rider Malibu filled with a bunch of tattooed, hairnet wearing Hispanic men cruising slowly through any neighborhood at three o'clock in the morning is a prime target for the police to pull over and question. Why? Because, if the cops were doing their job they would be stereotyping the car full of Hispanics in the interest of public safety. Do those men have the right to be cruising around at 3:00 am? Sure, and after a cursory stop by the police they should be free to continue cruising. Any police officer or other figure in a like position who does not profile - they are not doing their job. When you think about it though, isn't that what the police do every time they parade a line-up in front of a one-way mirror? Yes it is and it should not be vilified.
At the start of this blog entry I said "Stereotyping is not necessarily a bad thing" and I stand by that statement. What is a bad thing though are people who choose to rely solely on their stereotypical view of something and not be open to additional information which might change their view. These are the bigots of the world - people who are so close-minded about someone or something that they refuse to consider alternative or additional information that might possibly change their perspective or their stereotypical views. Stereotyping is a tool we use to build an opinion. You wouldn't build a house with just a hammer and you shouldn't build an opinion with only one tool.