Off the map: The risks of stereotyping

Oftentimes when I give a lecture or workshop on culturalization, I’ll relate to the audience something about my cultural and ancestral background, which is primarily Scottish. When I tell them that, I usually get a general nod of recognition for what that means — so I ask the audience to tell me exactly what that means to them. The responses I get are typically along the lines of “bagpipes,” “kilts,” “haggis,” “the Loch Ness Monster,” or the movie Braveheart. People may just shout “Freedom!” in response.

It all evokes a good laugh, but it brings up an important underlying issue: while most everything they’re relating to me is definitely an aspect of Scottish culture, it’s also part of a stereotype of what it means to be Scottish.

Stereotypes are rampant across all forms of popular media, and we’ve seen them evolve for the better over time yet some have a long way to go to see improvement. But what exactly is a stereotype? Strictly from a dictionary definition, it’s “the widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Most usually, this image or idea doesn’t reflect the reality of the person, place or thing, and thus it can potentially perpetuate a misperception of that entity, usually to its detriment. After all, it’s rare that a stereotype is actually a more positive reflection than the reality.

Space doesn’t allow me to go into the details of how and why we form stereotypes, but it’s likely apparent that there are many complex psychological and sociological reasons for creating stereotypes and how they perpetuate from generation to generation. Generally speaking, a stereotype is a mechanism that most people employ, even if subconsciously, to provide themselves with a frame of reference for understanding a particular person or thing.

Whether we like it or not, these categorizations and assumptions we make of other people, cultures and so on are just a part of the human psyche, as they aid us in trying to identify and understand phenomena. The drawback is that we often look specifically for these expected patterns or key cues in the same places, and thus it serves to reinforce the stereotype. The core issue in this process is that we’re not seeing the entire picture; in other words, stereotypes are essentially the fragmented, often negative perceptions we acquire that define the nature of what’s being only occasionally observed.

As you may surmise, stereotypes can fall into various thematic categories, such as those reflecting ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, political viewpoint, religious affiliation and nationality. Some stereotypes are pretty rampant, such as these in the United States:

A policeman loves to hang out in donut shops.

A young African-American male in an urban area is a potential drug dealer/criminal.

A white person with a southern drawl and a pickup truck is an uneducated, blue collar “hick.”

All Texans carry guns.

Southern Californians are lazy surfer types.

Blonde women are inherently ditzy.


Of course there are also national stereotypes we hear repeatedly, such as the assumptions that:

Irish and Russians are prone to being drunk most of the time.

French people are arrogant and have poor hygiene.

Chinese people will eat anything.

Canadians are passive and quiet (except when it comes to hockey).

Arabs are terrorists.


In various popular media, stereotypes have often been employed to set up something of an easy target for audience vitriol and negative reaction. For example, in many Old West films in the mid-twentieth century, Native Americans were almost always portrayed according to a very rigid stereotype, down to the specific costumes they wore from film to film, even when it didn’t properly reflect the tribe being portrayed. It wasn’t until much later with films such as Dances with Wolves that a more accurate depiction was attempted in very close consultation with representatives from Native American tribes. We’ve seen other stereotypes leveraged heavily over time, from Germans to Soviet Russians to North Koreans and so on.

When we look at the issue from a content development perspective, leveraging stereotypes is fundamentally what I consider to be nothing less than a serious lapse in creativity. The responsibility for generating something unique, realistic or believable lies on the creative professional, regardless if the final content is for advertising, a movie, a video game or whatever other medium. Thus, when a stereotype appears in the final version of the content, I view it as an inability — and in some cases a blatant unwillingness — to see past a colloquial cultural façade and appreciate the specific person, place or thing for its reality.

On one level, I can completely understand and sympathize with content creators. Most are not well-versed in the range of stereotypes and the majority of people aren’t even aware of the stereotypes they’ve already formed and carry with them. It’s only through something like the process of creative output that the stereotypes emerge, usually subconsciously. I can recall numerous incidents over the years where I pointed out people’s use of a stereotype and they were shocked to learn that they did so, not considering themselves to be prejudiced or biased. And they very well may not have been, but they were still human.

How can we ensure against the use of stereotypes in content? One key thing that needs to happen at some point in the creative process is a conscious step back, to pause for a moment and consider what’s being created and ask questions about why certain choices are being made. This is usually the responsibility of the writer, artist or copy editor, but sometimes it really does warrant a look by someone else. Getting another viewpoint is vital, and especially if the content is being targeted for a specific market or culture. Having that cultural perspective is actually mission-critical for success — it’s why some companies spend millions on market research and localization. More importantly, however, they need to consider culturalization and what underlying assumptions and messages they might be inadvertently conveying through an unchecked final product.

At least half the solution lies in being aware of the nature of stereotypes, and the innate process of creation that often draws them out of our personal and collective memories. When we lack experience with a specific culture or ethnicity, we have a duty to seek out that experience and broaden our understanding. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, from research to direct contact with the cultures in question. Oftentimes this kind of additional work is avoided due to schedules and impending deadlines, but when it comes to the accurate representation of any aspect of people, places and cultures, we must perform our due diligence.

In short: stop assuming and start experiencing. Doing anything less is to disrespect that which we aim to model.