A couple days ago Stephen Colbert returned to “The Colbert Show” after a three week hiatus. He was in top form in the segment where he “defended” Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that Asians tend to be studious and hard workers. The segment ends with Colbert digging a deeper hole for himself as he “compliments” Jews as making good lawyers ad women as being more sensitive than men because of their hormones. You can watch the segment here.
Like all good satire, this segment raises some interesting questions. In the segment Colbert “learns” that “positive” stereotypes (e.g. black people are fast, Jews make good lawyers) are as verboten as “negative” ones. But this forces the question: are all stereotypes really bad?
Interestingly, some stereotypes seem to fly under the radar. For example, it is not considered socially inappropriate to stereotype Caucasians as being unable to dance. The 1992 comedy “White Men Can’t Jump” has some fun challenging another stereotype when it casts Woody Harrelson as a hustling streetballer who exploits the assumptions of black basketball players that he must be unable to play because he’s Caucasian.
Is there a double standard? For example, are we more tolerant of stereotypes pertaiing to Caucasians than non-Caucasians? That may be the case. But if it is, it may trace to historical power inequities. If non-Caucasians have historically been more likely to be marginalized (hopefully that’s not an inappropriate stereotype!) then it could be that stereotyping of non-Caucasians includes a subversive element of social marginalization that simply doesn’t attend to stereotyping of the dominant social, economic or racial class.
Colbert says that women are more sensitive. That shift to gender stereotyping reminds me of another: women can’t drive. I’ve often heard this stereotype bandied about, and so far as I can see Danica Patrick’s fame hasn’t changed things much. It may be wrong to stereotype women as bad drivers. Is it wrong to joke that they’re bad drivers?
What about men liking sports? Or being unable to carry on extended conversations with one another? Are these stereotypes wrong?
What about that powder-keg issue of racial profiling? When I lived in England I knew a South African dentist of South Asian (i.e. Indian) ethnic origin. (South Africa has a large population of Indians.) When he travelled to America after 9/11 he was subjected to a ten hour interrogation by immigration. He was absolutely outraged at what he saw to be racial profiling as well as the incredulity and ignorance of the officers that an Indian could live in South Africa. “I’m not a terrorist!” he snarled “And I’m never going back to that racist country.” Was that treatment wrong? Or was it a reasonable security measure?
It seems to me that we’re dealing with a real minefield here. Stereotyping of majority groups versus minority groups. Stereotyping of major issues versus minor issues. Stereotyping as a way of navigating the world versus making a light-hearted joke. On the one side we face the perpetuation of dangerous prejudices, and on the other side a wearisome minefield of political correctness.
Like the best satire Colbert’s segment really gets us thinking.