Stereotypes are both enforced and self-enforced

A stereotype is 1) my belief about people I don’t know – but also 2) my knowledge of the stereotypes concerning me. So enforcement and self-enforcement both play a role in making them true – and they are hard to tell apart.

Those studies about stereotype threat really only measure how much we enforce these things on ourselves.

In other words, I will act according to my own expectations of what people expect from me, even when it is not enforced by the threat of a burning stake. Furthermore I can only confirm or deny the stereotypes against me – so I am stuck with them, either way. In other words, I enforce the stereotypes on myself.

But it is enforced, more often than not. Our first world experiences are watered-up in this respect. No mother beats up her daughter for doing math homework instead of learning to cook. No family member is ready to kill us if we are not modest enough. No one legally kills or ostracizes a man for being gay. We shrug these things off as impossible, even though they are the everyday reality to most of the world.

A stereotype is not simply enforced, it is implanted first. A stereotype is a self-executing piece of meme installed on me – and it doesn’t need to be actively enforced, as long as I am aware of it. All a meme needs to spread in a population is obedience to follow its commands and the willingness to replicate its message. And replicate we do. Don’t you find it curious how people cannot stop repeating tedious cliches? There is no way someone hadn’t heard of the cheese-eaters in their life and yet, something compels us to repeat it every time the French come up in a conversation. Just in case. So we do repeat compulsively.

Now let’s see whether we obey. And how?

How does a stereotype work?

The invisible way: Every enforcer’s dream

When you know about them and adhere to them. Feel guilty when supposed to. Withdraw when used to. Be shy or aggressive when supposed to. You know when that is. You are all too aware of the (real or perceived) judgment of others. You are dependent on their opinion and it makes you do it to yourself.


 1) If the process is self-executing, it uses purely the victim’s resources. No effort needed for enforcement.

This is probably what all those stereotype-threat studies picked up on – they didn’t make the distinction between enforcement and self-enforcement and only experimented with the latter. In the infamous study (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) where women fared worse on a math test when having to write their gender on the top of the test sheet, no one reminded them out loud that “Please remember, women are not supposed to be good at math.” Neither did the researchers threaten them with a fine or not finding a husband if they are too good at the test. They reminded themselves.

 2) It is deniable.

No one did it. It is the subject’s fault. Why didn’t he just ignore what other expected of him? Why wasn’t he smart enough to recognise and modify his own behaviour? It is a perfect launching pad for a good victim blaming and the victim is rendered helpless with only himself to blame.

If it bothers you that you’re supposed to be the brave and the breadwinner, why didn’t you just ignore it? Who made you to get married and offer to be a breadwinner? See? You did it to yourself.You threw yourself at the robber, no one made you. So shut up. You totally had a choice, you were just too cowardly to make it.

The second best way for a stereotype to work: Enforcement

When stereotypes need to be enforced, they are already weak. It has serious disadvantages:

 1) It requires the enforcer to put in some effort. 

It starts with unconscious, benevolent, or passive aggressive methods.

A woman doesn’t give birth by a certain age? Ask about it gently. Talk about how women (as such) are nurturing. See if she explodes. Demand an explanation. Tell her how much grandparents like grandchildren. A German fails to complete a task? Make a fuss. It makes him irritated? Feign surprise and tell him “don’t be so harsh”. You didn’t say anything, right? It is a benign stereotype, relax!

2) But it makes the pressure explicit – thus undeniable. 

As I said, had the researchers reminded the ladies taking the math test not to emasculate the gentlemen in the room – and there would be a good change of resistance.

Would the I’m-not-prejudiced-but types revel in the glorious test results of the pissed off women, who excelled at the test in defiance? Absolutely yes. It would be carried around on “right-wing” websites proving that no one is oppressed here. Defiance helps the oppressed to perform better.

Again, those tests measured self-enforcement, not explicit enforcement.

3) It is more risky, because it may trigger resistance.

Especially when it’s very aggressive.

Only a beginner (or a lynch mob) tries to enforce a stereotype by force

Public shaming or having to beat someone up carries the risk of resistance, it costs you great effort, and others might disagree when you enforce your prejudice explicitly. Only a very stupid prejudiced person would resort to open enforcement.

Not to mention that if you burn someone at the stake, they won’t stay to sing your praise and won’t join your army of enforcers. They won’t even boost your headcount of silent obedience.

The real question here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes, but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using them.

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