How Stereotypes Shape the Language People Use

As the United States celebrates its 2nd year of Juneteenth being a Federal Holiday, there will be many articles on race relations. But I’d like to broach one topic that often falls under the radar: stereotypes.

Every moment we look at a phone or television screen, our brains are continuously bombarded by images that depict (supposedly) the world around them. These images often show people of color through a stereotypical lens, and these stereotypes bleed into our everyday lives—our workplaces, our social lives, our politics. Yale University social psychologist, I’m trying to figure out how stereotypes can hold us back and what we can change.

When I was a young Black girl growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, I loved the movies. Every year my brother and I would eagerly line up to secure the best seats in the theatre for the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movie.

It was amazing to me how many characters I had seen. Very few people looked like my family or me. The few that did look like me or my family were monolithic, had limited speaking roles and often played supporting roles for White characters. These people were often poor, and sometimes criminal. They weren’t often wanted, were easily dismissed, and didn’t have the same nuanced or flawed inner worlds as White people.

This stereotype puzzled me. Prince George’s County, Maryland, is a majority-Black county—home to doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other Black professionals. The Black characters I saw on television didn’t reflect the rich, diverse, and joyful lives I saw around me. What is the point of putting people of colour in boxes? These stereotypes can harm individuals as well as society.

These questions are what led me to become a psychologist. Twenty-years later, I still study stereotypes. They influence how we relate to others and create inequality. Through dozens and thousands of participants in studies, I have found that stereotypes affect how we relate with other people. This can be seen through even the words they use.

One test focused only on White Americans. Stereotypes are also common for white people. They’re labeled as more competent than Black people and Latina/os, and White people think that other racial groups see them as racist and entitled. I predicted that White Americans, particularly those who want to connect across racial divides—White liberals—try to reverse these stereotypes through the very words that they use.

Over two thousand White Americans were asked to describe themselves online to Black and White people. As predicted, White liberals used fewer words related to competence (like “competitive” or “powerful”) when speaking to a Black person.

This “competence downshift” isn’t limited to a lab. Over 20 years of speeches of Republican and White Democratic presidential candidates, I found that White Democrats use fewer words about competence to address mostly-minority audience (e.g. NAACP) than they do when speaking to mostly-White audiences (e.g. American Federation of Teachers). White Republicans didn’t downshift competence, likely because they’re less interested in getting along with people of color. White Democrats are more likely than Republicans to address people of color.

This behavior could backfire for White liberals. Now, my colleagues and I have been testing whether Black observers perceive White liberals using less proficient language as being patronizing. This could reduce their chances of crossing-racial communication by downshifting competency.

Are people of color able to counter stereotypical language use? This was the result of analyzing 250,000 comments made by congressional members and 1,000,000 tweets from Black and Latina/o lawmakers on Twitter and Congress. Since they have a lower social status and are less powerful than White Americans I chose to focus on Black Americans. Because they have more negative attitudes towards their own race group, I chose to focus on conservatives.

It was found that Black Americans, Latina/os and Latina/os with more conservative views used more proficient language than those who spoke more liberally in predominantly-White environments. This was also true when I spoke to Black people about the effects of Black politicians.

These results show that people are driven to overcome negative stereotypes. This desire is apparent in daily conversation. Stereotypes can force us to fit into certain boxes. We use our words to try and break out of these rigidities.

Now an adult, I still love mainstream television and movies—and I am still largely disappointed by what I see. The vast majority of the characters are White and most spoken lines are for White characters. Many Black characters are also rooted in stereotypes. (The latest season of Netflix’s hit Stranger ThingsIt is an excellent example. Although awareness and research may help us to understand stereotypes and the harm they cause, unless we make large cultural changes that break down these stereotypes we will continue being shackled.

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