EVERYDAY FEMINISM

3 Reasons Positive Stereotypes Aren’t That Positive

Originally published on It’s Pronounced Metrosexual and cross-posted here with permission.

In my show, I address the issue of positive stereotypes head-on, but I wanted to write an article about it as well.  For those of you unaware, positive stereotypes are assumptions about an entire group or identity (e.g., gay men) that are considered to be “good.”

Some examples of positive stereotypes of gay men: they are artsy, friendly, fun, social, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-groomed, fit, and sassy (I think sassy is positive).  The list goes on.

Those are all good things, yeah?  There can’t be any harm in perpetuating those stereotypes, right?

Wrong.

Positive stereotypes exist for just about every identity and have the capacity to be just as damaging as the negative ones.

Don’t believe me?

Read this list of reasons why and get back to me afterward.  Oh, and if you have any additional examples, as always, share them in the comments below.

1. Positive stereotypes set the bar unrealistically high

Have you ever met a gay guy who wasn’t fit?  Or a black guy who wasn’t good at sports?  Or a woman who wasn’t caring?  I’m going to guess you have.

Now, the important part, did you realize that you were slightly disappointed or perturbed when you found out about the lack of those traits?  I’m going to guess you didn’t realize it, but you probably were.

Let’s take the list of positive stereotypes I wrote above about gay men: artsy, friendly, fun, social, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-groomed, fit.  That’s a pretty tall order for anyone to fill, and the list goes on and on and on.

Thanks to the media, every gay man you meet is being evaluated by a ridiculously tough rubric.  If he falls short (let’s say he’s a bit chubby, or anti-social), he’s going to disappoint you.  Who wants a B- gay friend when there are so many A+ gay men out there? (there aren’t, actually)

Lesson learned: Don’t be disappointed when your gay friend isn’t helpful in picking out a cute outfit the next time you go shopping.  (You can call me.  I’m not gay, but I’m great at putting together outfits.)

2. Positive stereotypes can inhibit an individual’s ability to perform

You’ve heard that Asian people are good at math, right?  Well, tell an Asian person that right before a math exam and you increase their potential… to bomb it.

Research has shown that perceived positive stereotypes, when brought into the forefront of an individual’s mind, can actually make them do worse at the thing they are supposed to be able to do better.

In the article I linked, the researchers made Asian-American women explicitly aware of their ethnicity (and the expectations attached to it) right before testing their math skills, and saw that they were more likely to collapse under the pressure and do poorly in the test.

Lesson learned: If you find yourself in the Cash Cab and a math question comes up, “Dude, you’re Asian, of course you know the answer,” might not be the most effective pep talk.  (But tag me in.  Six words: Math Bowl, 8th Grade, First Place.)

3. Positive stereotypes can be alienating and depressing to individual’s who are supposed to possess them but don’t

Being a member of a targeted or minority group is potentially alienating, particularly if you’re often surrounded by people who don’t identify that way.  You may often feel alone, not good enough, or looked down upon.

All of those feelings are amplified if you don’t even feel like you can connect with your target or minority group membership because you don’t live up to the hype.

I have an example that was shared with me by a friend.  Following is his story:

I’m a black man who grew up surrounded by white people.  Growing up, I was the only black person in my neighborhood, my school, and sometimes it felt like the entire town.  I never played basketball.  I can’t rap or dance well – I don’t even like hip hop.  I’m really good at video games and I watch baseball.  When I got to college, my skin made me too black to fit in with the white kids, and my skills/hobbies weren’t black enough to fit in with the black kids.

This can be applied to just about any group membership that carries with it positive stereotypes (and, as I mentioned before, just about all of them do).

It sucks to feel like you’re in the minority sometimes.  It sucks even more to feel like you’re not even good enough for the minority.

Lesson learned: Befriend people because of who they are as people, not the traits you assume will come with their group memberships.  That is, don’t try and make friends with a black guy because you need a point guard for your rec league team.  (Also, don’t call me, unless you want someone to bring orange slices for halftime).

So, what can we do?

I’ve noticed that we’ve gotten to the point where, in most cases, people aren’t flinging around negative stereotypes that often.  Unless you’re hanging out with racists.

But the people who are up for leading the fight against prejudice seem to be completely okay with reinforcing positive stereotypes, because, as I said before, “what’s the harm?”  Well, now you know.

The next time you’re hanging with a friend and they say “gay men are so fashionable” (heard it twice this week, once from a gay man), or anything of the like, let them know that can be just as damaging as “gay men are so child molesty” (only heard this once, in my life).

If you don’t feel up to the challenge, shoot ‘em a link to this article.

Passive aggressiveness is a trait that crosses all identity lines and group memberships. :)

Ever been the “victim” of a positive stereotype?

Share your story or other reactions in the comments below.  It’s helpful for me to hear the stories, and I’ve learned it may be even more helpful for other people stumbling upon this article to be able to read them as well.

Sam Killermann is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism and the person behind It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a comedy show and blog focused on issues of identity, stereotypes, and oppression. A social justice advocate and ally, Sam performs the show at colleges around the country and writes for the site when he is at home in Austin, TX. Follow on Twitter @Killermann.