Opinion: The problem with socially accepted stereotypes

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Stereotypes are often rightly portrayed in a negative light. As a place of higher education, Boise State’s students and faculty often push away stereotypes, especially those based on immutable characteristics, such as race, gender or national origin. University programs, such as the well known Tunnel of Oppression, claim to fight them.

“Find out what it’s like to experience biased behaviors and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes,” the Tunnel of Oppression’s webpage says.

But often you will find that many are selective in their outrage when it comes to stereotypes, only becoming outraged when a stereotype targets a group they identify with. If the stereotype targets a group they don’t identify with or they consider an enemy, then they will not only be tolerant of it but can also propagate it. This was shown in a recent Tunnel of Oppression production here on campus last fall.

No stereotypes allowed, expect for southern hicks

A video posted on Boise State’s Multicultural Student Services Facebook page shows a scenario in the previous Tunnel of Oppression portraying a protest regarding the controversy of removing confederate statues from public areas. On one side of a statue was a southerner supporting the monument.

“‘Course (this statue’s) America!” the actor depicting a southerner says while imitating a southern drawl. “It’s part of our history, our culture, I’m proud of it!”

The way the actor tries to put the southern tawng on his words depicts the classic example of the racist southern hick stereotype. This raises a question: why is it acceptable for an event which claims to fight stereotypes to portray the residents of an entire region of the United States in such a negative fashion?

If the Tunnel was simply trying to depict a southern setting, then why have the only person with a southern accent be the racist one?  And if they didn’t want to portray the south as a whole, but rather confederate statue supporters, then why would having a southern accent be a prerequisite for what the Tunnel depicts as a racist character? Why not use a southerner as the one siding with minorities? Like NPR did when they showcased Trae Crowder, a comedian who uses his southern heritage to fight for progressive values.

Is the south worse than other regions?

Perhaps the elephant in the room is whether the stereotype of the south and its residents being racist is accurate or not? This is a question Michael Harriot explored in his article “Is the South More Racist Than Other Parts of the U.S.?” which was published in The Root, an online publication focused on African American news and issues. Harriot looked at the standard of living in the south for African Americans and found many states in the south actually outperform northern states in equality for it’s minority residents.

Theses source included, but were not limited to, a study by the University of California showing southern schools being more racially integrated, a Forbes article showing Southern cities ranking high in terms of African American economic wellbeing and U.S. census data showing more African Americans in the south using their voting rights than in the north. Harriot’s whole article has many more sources exploring more issues (such as criminal justice) than this article can hold, so it’s recommended you give his work a read.

And beyond Harriot’s sources, when looking at the south in terms of general bigotry, the FBI’s official numbers on hate crimes from 2016 show southern states like Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama all reporting lower amounts of hate crimes than the national average when adjusting for population.

None of these stats are meant to ignore the unique problems the south has historically had with race, nor are they meant to deny there are some bigoted residents in the south. Nor do these stats mean to  invalidate any racist experiences minorities have had in the south or anywhere else. What the stats do show is the image of the south is much more complicated than the simple “the south and all its residents are racist” stereotype.

Acceptable Stereotypes

It’s extremely unfortunate that the Tunnel of Oppression, an event sponsored by Multicultural Student Services, would so carelessly stereotype an entire region of our country. One of the main complaints Andrew Ridgeway (former Arbiter opinion editor) lodged against the Tunnel was the fact it didn’t accurately portray the reality minorities face, but rather a warped “oppression theater,” where students feel catharsis because they think they’ve seen oppression when in reality they’ve done nothing to actually understand or fight it. And regarding their most recent depiction of southerners, it’s hard to disagree.

If we are going to be truly devoted to eliminating harmful stereotypes, we have to be critical of all of them, even if we are comfortable with them.

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