Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Tribal Stereotypes

By Thomas Kochman - 06.18.2009

The column by Brent Staples titled Even Now, There’s Risk in ‘Driving While Black’ , The New York Times June 14, 2009 is a good reminder that profiling and stereotypes of African Americans, especially black men, endure, notwithstanding the election of an African American president.  In fact, it has been long held by black men — especially those that have reached celebrity status—that the white public views their success as exceptional: as reflecting upon individual achievement but not upon an African American, or member of group, achievement.

This persistence of these attitudes toward a group notwithstanding, the success of individuals from that group raises the question of what it would take for stereotypes of the group to change?  And if many individual successes as members of a group are ultimately what it takes, how long before that happens?
Tribal stereotypes prevail in the corporate workplace too, as we document in our book Corporate Tribalism.  In our diversity training, we often talk about the challenges individuals from various groups face because of views of them as members of a group, and not just as individuals. We pose the question, “If you just became manager of a new work group what do you think you might specially have to prove above and beyond what everyone might have to prove?” The different responses that we get from different groups speak directly to stereotypes that exist about that group.

White women, African Americans, and Hispanics often say they have to especially prove their competence and leadership capability in order to overcome the stereotype that they, as a group, are “not qualified till they prove they are.” They also report having to deal with the suspicion, often held by white men, that they got the job because of “affirmative action,” which to white men suggests lack of proper qualifications. (See my blog “Individual vs. Member of a Group” on Sotomayor’s nomination.)

East Asians say they have to overcome the stereotype of “not being leadership material.” Their traditional cultural reserve runs counter to the U.S. mainstream cultural standard that views leaders as “visible, verbal, assertive.”  For other East Asian stereotypes see Stereotypes of East Asians in the United States.

White men say that they have to prove that they “treat everyone equally,” or, are “fair”, based upon the group stereotype of them as “racist and sexist till they prove they’re not.” This last stereotype in many ways is harder to dispel because unlike competence on the job or leadership capability, standards around what constitutes fairness are variable or still in flux. Is it the time honored golden rule, “Do unto others as you would want done unto you!” Well that works to the extent that people are like you! But what if people are not like you and want to be treated differently? This produces the lament, “They keep telling us to respect difference but don’t tell us what differences to respect!”

So tribal stereotypes impact everyone even if the challenges for members of different groups are different.

What are the stereotypes that you have had to face as a member of a group?

Were you ever able to dispel them? If so, how?

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