Heavily distorted and generalized portrayals of the targeted group are generated and reinforced in order to justify and rationalize oppression.
Stereotypes assert that all members of a group share similar characteristics. They profess to know something meaningful about a person’s character without knowing them as an individual. They deny the vast diversity of people within a group and the profound complexity of each individual. Multiple studies clearly demonstrate that there is overwhelmingly more genetic diversity and diversity of character within groups than between groups.
Similarly, Caricatures are distorted portrayals of people that emphasize and/or invent features that conform to a specific narrative. Caricatures can make an individual appear smart or dumb, powerful or weak, gentle or violent. In the context of oppression, caricatures are used to place members of the targeted group into a narrative that justifies their oppression.
Common Patterns of Oppressive Stereotypes and Caricatures:
- Members of the targeted group are violent and scary, therefore it’s okay to limit their freedoms and strike them before they strike us.
- Members of the targeted group are uncivilized and savage, therefore it’s okay to take their land and money because they won’t use it to its full potential.
- Members of the targeted group are infantile and irresponsible, therefore it’s okay to take away their autonomy and limit their opportunities.
- Members of the targeted group are greedy and selfish therefore they should not have access to wealth and other resources.
- Members of the targeted group are impure and ugly, therefore they are undesirable and shouldn’t be part of the community.
- Members of the targeted group are demonic and evil, therefore they do not qualify for basic human rights.
- Members of the targeted group have magical powers, therefore they are strange and exotic and not human the same way everyone else is human. While magical powers might seem like a positive trait, it serves to create psychological distance and turns a member of the group into an exotic object and serves a narrative of “otherness.”
A few examples of visual caricature targeting an oppressed group:
- Thomas Nast’s portrayal of Irish immigrants in New York City
- British portrayal of Hindus in Gunga Din
- Native American caricature from Looney Tunes
- Native American caricature from Disney’s Peter Pan
- Racist Caricature of Serena Williams
- Antisemitic Caricatures of Jews from Nazi Germany
- Caricatures of Black Americans in historical Context (Ethnic Notions)
Caricatures and stereotypes are reinforced in newspapers, books, movies, cartoons, and tv shows, and then through the regular repetition by people who take these distorted portrayals for truth.
How people in power benefit from caricatures and stereotypes of oppressed groups:
Perhaps the greatest tool to fight oppression is the recognition of common humanity. By denying common humanity, people in power can more easily maintain the fiction that only certain groups and individuals deserve basic rights and protections.
Similarly, it is in the economic interests of large business owners to keep employees weak and dependent. Thus, stereotypes and caricatures can fuel prejudice against certain classes of workers that limit their employment options outside of particular industries (e.g. farm labor, meat-processing plants.)
How to Dismantle Damaging Caricatures and Stereotypes:
One way to combat negative caricature and stereotype is to emphasize the common humanity of different groups of people. We can take care to appreciate the diversity of individuals within groups. It is less likely someone will make sweeping assumptions about a group if they know lots of people in it. (Increased representation in the media of various groups)
It can be difficult to uproot entrenched stereotypes and caricatures, but the tools of critical thinking can quickly expose their stupidity. The problem is that we don’t often take the time and energy to learn and apply these tools. Humans are cognitive misers. We’d rather preserve our energy for survival and romance than spend precious calories thinking hard about a complex world. In the case of stereotypes and caricatures, we fall prey to a host of logical fallacies and cognitive biases. But by recognizing these common mistakes, we can take steps to correct them.
- Hasty Generalization: We make a claim about a large group based on a small sample. “Because one member of the targeted group is poor, all members of the targeted group are poor.” (Truth: You can’t say anything true about a large group based on a few individuals)
- False Dichotomy: We assume that there are only two positions, groups, or options when there are, in fact, many more. “This is about us, the pure wonderful people, and them, the corrupted lousy people.” (Truth: Humans across the world are all overwhelmingly similar. Every population has nice people, grouchy people, saintly people, unethical people, smart people, ignorant people, and every other type of person.)
- Confirmation Bias: We favor explanations and sources of evidence that support what we already think. “See? I told you those people are rotten! This one in the newspaper committed a crime!” (Truth: The world is really big and really complex. It’s important to constantly question our entrenched beliefs to avoid missing huge swathes of reality.)
- Suggestion Bias: We are strongly influenced by the most recent things we’ve heard. “Look at the war happening in that country! Those people are such savages! I don’t like people from that country!” (Truth: People’s lives are long and complex. Assuming anything about them based on whatever is happening now ignores vast histories and deep complexities.)
Fundamental Attribution Error: We tend to forgive ourselves our mistakes and missteps because we appreciate the complexities of our lives. When others make similar mistakes we tend to infer that it’s due to deeply embedded character flaws. “When we mess up, it’s because we’re complicated and the world is complicated. When they mess up, it’s because they are fundamentally flawed people.” (Truth:Everyone’s life is complicated.)