On Tuesday, I made a distinction between racism and racial stereotypes.
Racial stereotyping is the universal assignment of a characteristic to a particular race.
Racism is defined by implication of inferiority, discrimation and/or negativity.
A racial stereotype can be the root of racism.
I'm guessing everyone who isn't racist agrees that racism is bad, but what about racial stereotypes?
IT REALLY ISN'T UNIVERSAL
The thing about stereotypes is that they are mostly based in truth. But a racial stereotype can be bad or offensive when it's assumed to be absolutely universal.
Take Tuesday's fried chicken example. I don't have data on how much more black people like fried chicken that white people. I don't have data on the demographics of KFC's customers. But I do happen to be black. And I happen to know I love fried chicken. My road trip partner and I have a standing joke that every time we go on the road and we hit a combini (convenience store), I head for the fried chicken. It's like freakin' kryptonite.
There's also the fact that Barbados was (and maybe still is, I just don't have the data) the number 1 consumers of chicken per capita IN THE WORLD. And the population is 90% black. There may be a million other reasons for the correlation (price, ease of cooking, availability of other meats), but the fact is there happens to be a correlation between my 90% black homeland and chicken.
It is not unreasonable to assume that a black person will like fried chicken. But there may be disastrous results if they don't. In fact, one of my friends who was arguing about the fried chicken pic on Facebook, is a black vegetarian.
I'M MORE THAN A RACE
People are more than the group they belong too. Asians like anime. That's another fairly common stereotype. But if you're hosting a Japanese exchange student, that doesn't mean you should stock up on hours-worth of anime DVDs. The student will have other interests. Maybe they really like nature, and would like to go hiking. Or they love sports. Or they'd like to learn how make gumbo. Who knows? But even if they do fit into the stereotypical descriptions of their race, there will be more to them.
THE INTERSECTION OF RACE AND CULTURE
I'm not sure that this one particularly matters outside Asia. Black stereotypes apply fairly well to all blacks in the West. Ditto Latino sterotypes. But in Far East Asia, the relationship between Japan, China and South Korea is a complex one. Sometimes stereotypes from one culture are applied to all Asians, and it does not go over well. For example, asking a Chinese person if they own a kimono.
LET'S GET PHYSICAL
I have a Japanese friend, Asuka (one of several Asuka's - it's a super popular name), who has a stereotypical Japanese body. She's less than 5 feet tall, and so skinny that I could fold her up and fit her in my thigh. She has virtually no hips, and a teeny bust. And her eyelids are always so close together you can't tell if they're open or shut. In 4 years, she's the only person I've ever met who looks so stereotypical. But there are many who break the stereotypes. There are tall Japanese and fat Japanese. I even had a teacher last year who I nicknamed "Surprise-Face." His eyes open wider than anyone I know, leaving his face in a perpetual state of surprise. (I used to love telling him mundane things just so he could look surprised to hear it. What? I'm easily amused.)
There are many characteristics which are similar for many people in a race. For example, here in Japan, people are shorter, and so are houses. In his first few months, I would hear my former neighbour, P, yell at least once a week when he forgot to duck, and banged his head in his house somewhere. And of course, there are clothing manufacturers. Brands that concentrate on black females often have more room in the hips and butt. Brands that concentrate on Asians have less leg and hip room.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Stereotypes can be useful in catering to large groups of people, if you do it tastefully and thoughtfully. Say you have to plan a menu for a conference of Asian people. Rice is a winner, as is fish. If you're catering for black people, you'll probably want the food to be more seasoned, and for latinos, spicier. Sports and music and clothes also tend to run along racial lines. But racial stereotypes can be sticky when dealing with individuals or small groups.
I think everyone would be fine if they remember one thing. People are people first.