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ThreeSixty: Looking Beyond the Label

ThreeSixty reporter Sisi Wei interviews Buffy Smith, assistant professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of St. Thomas, about stereotyping.


“I feel like I haven’t arrived, but I’m certainly closer to living into my calling,” said Buffy Smith, assistant professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of St. Thomas. Having always wanted to be a teacher, Smith found her passion for sociology during college. Becoming a sociology professor just made sense.

Smith now studies the development of mentoring programs for first-generation college students as well as students of color. Her research seeks better ways to help students thrive in college by teaching them the “academic game” — the unwritten norms, values, expectations or codes of behavior. Linkages, a mentoring program at St. Thomas, has integrated part of Smith’s research. Smith is part of the assessment team that will evaluate if students really benefit from the tailored program.

Smith currently teaches “Race and Ethnicity” and “Social Problems” at St. Thomas. In Spring 2009, Smith will launch a social stratification course titled “Social Inequality: Privileges and Power.” She spoke about stereotyping with ThreeSixty reporter Sisi Wei.

What is a stereotype?

A basic definition of stereotypes is the unreliable and exaggerated generalization about all members of a group without taking individual differences into account.

Why do we do it?

I think, unfortunately, it’s part of our socialization process. It’s part of our cultural norm; we have constructed social categories of people: males, females, what it means to be black, Latino, gay, a Christian, or a U.S. citizen…

Once we know what your social category is, we [associate] numerous attributes to that particular category…instead of understanding and realizing the special unique humanity of the individuals within a group.

What do we get out of stereotyping others?

It allows us to easily stratify people. So we don’t have to get to know the individual when we go into a crowded room and don’t know anyone. We look at an individual, we decide what particular category that individual fits into, and then we already have our preconceived attributes that have been reinforced through society over and over again.

We can immediately say, ‘Oh, I will be closer to be this person because of these attributes. I perceive that we have something in common, because…this group is perceived to be smart. I’m smart, so I will have more in common with this person. Therefore, I don’t really need to get to know this other person.’

As for why we are prejudiced towards others, I think it always has to do with fear and insecurity and this notion that there are scarce resources…and in order for me to thrive in life and be successful, I have to somehow hold you back. We have this very unhealthy notion of individualism and competition in society that reinforces why stereotypes tend to be a very important way of reinforcing social divisions.

How do stereotypes develop?

It occurs because individuals observe behavior and then they say (because of their lack of exposure to the diversity of people in that particular category) if I observe one black person who makes a jump, all black people have this skill.

Then if you’re celebrated for that, and if people see you only as an athlete, only as an entertainer, should we be surprised then that most young people or most blacks would pursue professions that will reinforce that stereotype? They’re celebrated because they’re entertainers…or athletes. They aren’t celebrated because they’re neurosurgeons. They aren’t celebrated because they’re CEOs. Then it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do you think there can be any positive effects from any sort of stereotype?


How does stereotyping link to discrimination and racism?

It’s the seed. It goes stereotypes, then labeling, and then self-fulfilling prophecy, which goes right into prejudice. Prejudice then leads into individual forms of discrimination, which leads right into institutional forms of discrimination.

As children grow up, what do you think is the first stereotype they’re exposed to?

I can say from my personal experience, I think it’s whatever you see as being different from your home environment. So, if I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood, then maybe race wouldn’t be the most salient difference. But maybe class would. It’s whatever causes you to pause and say, ‘Why isn’t this person like me?’ Especially if I see that the older folks in my family or neighborhood interact with that person differently.

How has stereotyping, especially in America, affected politics, foreign policy, and views on foreign places?

I think that our policies in terms in our national security are certainly affected by stereotype.

When people are afraid, it’s easier just to rely on ‘Yes, all individuals in this group should be feared and they’re all terrorists.’…The reason why our stereotypes can shape public policies is because they’re a cultural norm and we all feed into it. If we don’t actively protest it and call it into question, we actively endorse it through our silence.

When we’re afraid, when we’re insecure, it’s so easy for us to create ‘us vs. them.’ It would require a different mindset for citizens to actively say, ‘Our policies are hurting our country.’ At this point, I think we still feel secure that we can maintain our superpower status and still practice and implement policies that do discriminate against people.

How do we fight stereotypes?

I think we start with ourselves. You have to start with how do you stereotype people on a regular basis. So let’s say I immediately walk into a room and I see two other African Americans in a room of mostly white people. If I take a seat next to an African American, then I’ve already created social categories based on race. And even without being vocal, I’ve said that I would be able to connect with them more. Now in our course of conversation, I could find out that I really don’t have anything in common with these African Americans. But I’ve missed out on an opportunity to talk to a white brother or white sister…

We all have a responsibility. There’s no one group that should start first. It’s an individual as well as a collective process and we have to hold each other accountable but at the same time practice a type of ‘affirming forgiveness’ with each other…If I [stereotype], I’d appreciate someone saying, ‘Buffy, you should think about this or be more mindful of this’ versus someone saying, ‘What you just said was stupid’ or ‘What you just said was racist.’ That sort of moral bully club, I don’t think heals the division that we have in our nation. I think we have to hold each other accountable but practice an affirming forgiveness — we’re all trying to do better.

Do you have any personal examples?

I grew up in a low-income, African American neighborhood. The owners of a lot of the stores were of Arab descent and as a kid…instead of saying ‘Arab Americans’, we said ‘A Wraps.’ And this was a negative name to describe a group of people. But to show you how it became normative, that’s just what I said as a kid.

There was a conversation I was having with my mother when I was a college student. And this was actually because one of my best friends in college was Palestinian. And when we were going to the store, I would say, ‘There are a lot of A Wraps stores over here.’ To see her reaction, to see that pain I inflicted, and to not be aware of it, made it me really think about how unless we correct one another, unless we’re patient with one another, we can inflict a lot of hurt. At the time, I thought I was being a good person — I wasn’t judging her.

I was able to change my terminology, and when my mother or my grandmother would make a reference, for me to be able to say ‘Mom, they’re not called A Wraps. This is offensive. It’s akin to being called a nigger. It’s not positive.’ And then in subsequent conversations, she might say ‘A—’ and then she’d say ‘Arabs’. You know that this person isn’t mean or hateful; it’s just what they’re used to saying. That was the turning point for me.

What advice do you have for minority students just trying to be successful?

Build social capital. And when I say that, I mean, look for multiple mentors. Do not think that you need a mentor who has the same race, ethnicity, or gender. You just need someone who has and understands the institutional culture and who would be willing to navigate you through that process. The key to thriving in college or graduate school is having multiple connections.

I think it’s sometimes difficult for first-generation students and students of color to become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. But it’s a skill that you have to master. It’s still something I do. The more you put yourself in a situation where you know you’re going to feel uncomfortable, but you do it anyway, and you’re trying to be approachable and accessible, then people are more likely to mentor you.

You should always be proud of your ethnicity or heritage, but always remember there are individuals and other racial ethnic groups that you could have that same closeness and connect to as well.

Don’t fall into the trap that we all have to be so competitive. Don’t horde knowledge or horde resources so you will be on top. Just think of a different model of success. You can rise to the top and what God has for you and your plan, your purpose in life; no one can take that away from you. You don’t have to put your foot on someone’s neck and you don’t have to create obstacles for him or her. If we’re really able to just affirm each other, it’s scary to think where we would be as a global community.

For a student’s personal perspective on stereotyping, visit ThreeSixty.