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Unlearning Stereotypes for Our Own Sake

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“Our self-talk is what we say to ourselves in our heads, and the soundtrack of our lives.”

Amy Przeworski Ph.D. wrote this powerful sentence in her article on the psychological strength of superior athletes in her post for Psychology Today. It touches on a concept I’ve been thinking about in conjunction with the powerful Whistling Vivaldi, by social psychologist Claude Steele. The book explores the concept of self-stereotyping and how we judge others based on their sex, race, gender, or whatever group to which we mentally assign them. We raise and lower our expectations of ourselves, and others, based on those stereotyped segments. The danger in this is not solely what you see at first glance, that we are selling people short based on our own biases. We also sell ourselves short, for many reasons.

J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy has struck a similar chord. The book explores, in depth, how Vance’s perception of his place in the world almost held him back from all of the opportunities he eventually grabbed. He could only grab them once the Marine Corp remolded his self-belief and he realized that things he thought were beyond him, in fact, were attainable.

The Contingency of Agency

Steele calls the recognition that you belong to a certain group of people “the contingency of agency.” Recognizing that you belong to some specific group is essential to breaking out of it. People in our community, the neurodiverse, are usually hyper aware of their belonging to a group that is set apart and “other” than the rest. They are aware of their “agency” because their speech-language disorder forces that awareness. The primary method we have of communing with other human beings is language. If you have a speech-language disorder you become acutely aware that you are not part of the community that does not share your disorder because of the way you are treated by those with whom you communicate.

But We Have a Choice

Dr. Steele wrote about research that discovered that you can choose your stereotype; whichever one you make most salient will dominate who you are, and how you see the people you are stereotyping. For instance, Asian women can choose to ignore the stereotype that dictates that women do not excel in math and instead embrace the one that says Asians do. They can mentally choose to embrace the stereotype that makes them stronger, rather than weaker.

I could not stop thinking about the power of the mind to choose to stereotype. What if we all chose to embrace the strongest stereotype about ourselves, but also, about others? What if we all created a stereotype that dictated that neurodiverse people were more than their language? What if the stereotype didn’t work to specifically define a group of people, but instead, forced us to see them as deeper, even mysterious. What if, when we encountered a neurodiverse person the most salient stereotype we drew from was one that said:

“This person is more than what I first see and hear.”

What if our reaction, because of the stereotype we created, was to slow down and look at the individual differently, knowing there was a deeper person there we had yet to discover. That may be an unrealistic wish on my part, but the very exercise of considering it can make us recognize how much we miss out on when we operate on stereotypes, both for ourselves, and for others. Step one to breaking beyond stereotypes is to recognize how much power they have over us. There are examples all around us, examples like J.D. Vance, that show us how much more is possible if we recognize and move past them.

Photo credit: ‘PixelPlacebo’ I’ve seen them! via photopin (license).

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Jill Willcox
Jill Willcox has worked in various human resources positions over the past 16 years including as HR Manager, Benefits Consultant at Aon Hewitt and as a Health Service Representative, working with people who had catastrophic work injuries. She is the mother of two children who are talented and contribute to society in a very meaningful way.
Jill Willcox

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