Definition and Vocabulary Glossary

English Teaching Forum Online

Stereotypes and Prejudices:

Stereotypes are defined in a number of ways. Consider these definitions of a stereotype:

1. A simplified and fixed image of all members of a culture or group (based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, national origins)
2. Generalizations about people that are based on limited, sometimes inaccurate, information (from such sources as television, cartoons or comic books, minimal contact with one or more members of the group, second-hand information)
3. Initial predictions about strangers based on incomplete information about their culture, race, religion, or ethnicity
4. A single statement or attitude about a group of people that does not recognize the complex, multidimensional nature of human beings
5. Broad categories about people that fail to differentiate among individuals, peoples, and societies
6. Identification of easily observable characteristics of groups of people

Stereotypes can be either positive or negative, but they are all unfair and misleading. In general, stereotypes reduce individuals to a rigid, inflexible image; they do not account for the fact that human beings are complex and multidimensional, with unique attributes. Stereotypes suggest that people or groups of people are the same, when, in fact, they are quite different. Stereotypes about human beings tend to dehumanize people, placing all members of a group into one, simple category.

Although generalizations, the basis for stereotyping, represent a natural part of the learning process, when they are directed at human beings, they can be dangerous and harmful. When we stereotype people, we prejudge them; we assume that all people in a group have the same traits. This form of blind categorization leads to false assumptions about people and causes misunderstandings, hostility, abusive behaviors, conflicts, discrimination, and prejudice. For example, if we are walking through a park late at night and encounter three senior citizens wearing fur coats and walking with canes, we may not feel as threatened as if we were met by three high school-aged boys wearing leather jackets. Why is this so? We have made a generalization in each case. These generalizations have their roots in experiences we have had ourselves, read about in books and magazines, seen in movies or television, or have had related to us by friends and family. In many cases, these stereotypical generalizations are reasonably accurate. Yet, in virtually every case, we are resorting to prejudice by ascribing characteristics about a person based on a stereotype, without knowledge of the total facts. By stereotyping, we assume that a person or group has certain characteristics. Quite often, we have stereotypes about persons who are members of groups with which we have not had firsthand contact or fear.

Civil societies can only thrive when damaging stereotypes are broken down. The difficulty is that stereotypes are sometimes hard to recognize because they are fixed beliefs. Learning to identify stereotypes is one of the first steps we must take to build a civil society. All of us face peer pressure when confronted with a joke which puts down a certain minority. It takes courage to raise objections to these jokes and pejorative names and to actively fight the prejudice and bigotry which they foster. It is important to stand up against injustice, and fight the discrimination, stereotypes, and scapegoating which have served as the precursors to persecution, violence, and genocide. After identifying stereotypes, we can work toward eliminating them from society. When stereotypes are eliminated, it will be easier to acknowledge and appreciate individual differences. When we live in a society that is open to cultural diversity and that values the contributions of all society members--regardless of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, race, life styles, and belief--we will be one step closer to living in a civil society.

Glossary of important terms

alienation (n)

to be alienated (v)

a feeling of being separate, a feeling of not belonging

attitude of superiority (n)

To feel superior (v)

belief that one is better than others are

discrimination (n)

to discriminate against (v)

special treatment (good or bad) based on race, religion, physical appearance, age, social class

ethnocentrism (n)

ethnocentric (adj)

belief that one's own group (culture, race, country) is better than others are

generalization (n)

To generalize (v)

a statement that does not include details or important differences

harm (n)

harmful (adj)

To harm (v)

physical or emotional pain

causing physical or emotional pain

hostility (n)

hostile (adj)

anger, hatred, strong opposition

intolerance (n)

To be intolerant (v)

lack of kindness or understanding toward people who are different

prejudice (n)

to be prejudiced against (v)

to feel prejudice against (v)

a negative, unfair opinion about a person or group of people, usually based on limited information or limited experience
racism (n) belief that an ethnic group is superior or inferior to other groups
scapegoat (n) A person or group who is given the blame for the mistakes or failures of others, promoted through the use of propaganda.

stereotype (n)


a very simple, often mistaken, generalization about a group of people
traits (n) characteristics, features

xenophobia (n)

xenophobic (adj)

fear or dislike of foreigners and strangers