Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Racism
- Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Implication for Christians: Beware of forming stereotypes—unjustified generalizations. Not only do they tend to hurt people (or unduly puff up the pride of others); they are also unreliable guides in life.
Christians should use generalizations justly and lovingly to form true and helpful judgments about people and life.
Matthew 7:12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
What is a generalization? Merriam-Webster defines a generalization as follows: 1) a general statement, law, principle, or proposition. 2) the act or process whereby a learned response is made to a stimulus similar to but not identical with the conditioned stimulus. Thus generalizations are an essential part of learning and living. Without them wise living is impossible.
- Many mushrooms are poisonous, and in general they have a certain spongy appearance. This generalization will keep you from experimenting with them in the woods when you are hungry and may save your life.
- Thin boards generally will not hold up a heavy man when stretched over wide spaces. This generalization will keep you from falling in the river.
- Generally, people in America stop when the light is red for them and green for you. You count on this and thus the traffic can keep flowing.
So the tough question is: When is a generalization about a group racist? I am using the word racist as something sinful, and the following answers move toward a definition. The following uses of generalization would be wrong (racist):
- When you want a person to fit a negative generalization that you have formed about a group (even if the generalization statistically is true).
- When you assume that a statistically true negative generalization is true of a particular person in the face of individual evidence to the contrary.
- When you treat all the members of a group as if all must be characterized by a negative generalization.
- When you speak disparagingly of an entire group on the basis of a negative generalization without any regard for those in the group who don’t fit the generalization. Or: When you speak negatively of a group based on a generalization without giving any evidence that you acknowledge and appreciate the exceptions. (I assume that Jesus’ generalizations about the Pharisees [Matthew 23] and Paul’s generalization about the Cretans [Titus 1:12] are not sinful because they did have such regard and did appreciate the exceptions.)
Implication for Christians: While realizing that life is not livable without generalizations, be careful not to let your pride lead you to use statistical generalizations in unloving ways.
Longing to think and love like Jesus,
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