Diversity Recruiting – Stereotyping

“Dear God, so far today I’ve been pretty good. I haven’t cursed; I haven’t talked about my neighbor; I haven’t lost my temper; I haven’t been mean to anyone; I haven’t been greedy; I haven’t been selfish; I haven’t had too much to drink; I haven’t been nasty or coveted anything. I’m thankful for that. But in a couple of minutes, Dear God, I’m going to get out of bed and from then on I’m going to need a lot more help. Amen.”

A Quincy Jones remark is perfect right here: “I’ve always thought that a big laugh is a really loud noise from the soul saying: ‘Ain’t it the truth?'”

God must have a great sense of humor. The giraffe, the camel, the monkey attest to that. Some, Bostonians for sure, would say the New York Yankees fit this category. Many times when I experience things that happen in everyday life, human foibles and interactions, I think: “Here’s another example of God’s humor.” God must get a big kick and a few laughs out of the way we stereotype people who are different but I don’t think He sees any humor in the way we treat people who are different.

Stereotypes are harmful because they prevent us from seeing people as individuals with unique skills and characteristics. Stereotypes are almost always negative or have a negative effect on the person stereotyped.

Gordon Allport defines stereotyping as “a perceptual and cognitive process in which specific behavioral traits are ascribed to individuals on the basis of their apparent membership in a group…. A stereotype is an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category.”

Allport states that prejudice is a logical outcome of stereotyping. Prejudice, as defined in Webster’s Dictionary, is “a feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on actual experience.” In The Nature of Prejudice, Allport takes it a step further: “Prejudice is an overt or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.”

Many believe that we all have a natural tendency toward prejudice and stereotyping. Allport teaches that prejudice ranges from people whispering about or avoiding certain people, to discriminating against those people (keeping the country club white), to attacking certain groups with violence or semi-violence (isolating or making it tough for a neighbor of color), to death (lynching, massacres, genocide). According to Allport, a prejudiced person is a mixed-up human being. His words are strong:.

The course of prejudice in a life seldom runs smoothly. Prejudiced attitudes are almost certain to collide with deep-seated values that are central to the personality. The influence of the school may contradict the influence of the home. The teaching of religion may challenge social stratification. Integration of such opposing forces with a single life is hard to achieve.

Hey! This is pretty ponderous and dispiriting for a beautiful spring day. Lighten up. Go back to stereotyping; that’s more palatable. Is it? Listen to the words of Dr. Evelyn Scott in an address delivered in Melbourne, Australia:

It is stereotyping which is the root cause of racism; it is stereotyping which is preventing us from reconciling our differences….The term stereotype was first used in the eighteenth century to describe a printing process designed to duplicate pages of type. Today its meaning has changed dramatically. Today we recognize stereotyping as a fixed conception of a group which is held by many people, which allows for no individuality or critical judgment.

One of my clients is a major hospital where 139 different ethnic groups are served. Imagine listing all the stereotypes perceived in that environment. It would be easy and probably entertaining to specify universal examples of stereotyping. If I did so, this article would take an entire issue of TFL. Instead, let me quote Sondra Thiederman, the author of Making Diversity Work:

“Positive biases are as apt as negative ones to distort our perception of what a person is really like…. A big problem with positive stereotypes is that each good thing we inflexibly believe about a group is invariably paired in our minds with something negative…. I can think of few groups that we glorify more than the Irish, but our infatuation is a double-edged sword. Yes, we declare with a winsome smile, they are charming, but they are also childlike; yes, they are poetic but they are also moody and temperamental. Everyone, of course, knows how creative the Irish are; how sad, we say, that this creative spirit leads them to drink.”

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The world is changing. We are becoming more ethnically diverse. People from different cultures are coming into daily contact with each other and this brings greater opportunity for the expression of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

The main arena for this change is the workplace where the vast majority of us make our living. The workplace is made up of many groups. In Voices of Diversity by Renee Blank and Sandra Slipp, real people talk about problems and solutions in a workplace where everyone is not alike. The diverse voices portrayed in the chapters are those of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Recent Immigrants, Workers with Disabilities, Younger and Older Workers, Gays and Lesbians, Women, and White Men. Rather than deal with all the voices, let me conclude with some African American voices I have heard in the workplace in the past thirty-four years some are from this book, others from my experience:

– We never get honest feedback. We are always seen as blacks, no matter what; the black accountant, the black engineer. Race is always our identifier, our badge.

Rarely are we singled out for our accomplishments. We have to be clearly better than our white counterparts.

The old stereotypes follow us around they are always there. When we talk about veiled or overt discrimination, no one believes us.

No matter how good our track record is, we still have to prove ourselves. Our achievements do not follow us.

When we excel, we make people uncomfortable. Rarely are we part of the normal socialization in an organization.

Stereotyping is all of the above but it is also sad because we miss so much about the persons being stereotyped.

Frank X. McCarthy is Partner in Charge of Diversity Practice with The Corporate Source Group. He was a Catholic priest from 1956-70, working in parish and school assignments, serving as a paratrooper chaplain with the 101st Airborne, and as pastor and director of an African American community project in Paterson, NJ. He founded Xavier Associates and conducted diversity searches for over 25 years. Frank is a well-known and widely respected author and speaker on workplace diversity, recruiting, and candidate research. He can be reached: frank@diverseworkplace.com

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