Monday, November 11, 2013

No Joke: Don’t Let Preference Become Prejudice

It's only funny if everyone can laugh

                Why do so many people like to make fun of someone, based on a stereotype? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has observed that when people don’t understand something, the first response is often to ridicule it.
               It’s especially troubling when an entire group of people become victims. No one is exempt; even the rich and famous get both barrels. But things can get serious real fast when stereotyping takes aim on historically marginalized groups. Native Americans, for instance. Folks who are disabled are another favorite target. Those with low or no income also come to mind.
               Recently, I witnessed a particularly disturbing TV commercial. The ad was promoting a leading satellite TV service that used a poor fictional family (presumably from the Appalachian Mountains region) as the punch line. Punching bag was more like it. Their home was filthy and in disrepair. The family had grimy faces, bore horrific dental work and wore clothing that was soiled and tattered. It was ghastly, not funny.
There's a difference between fun and humiliation
               What’s worse is that stereotypes like this are regularly portrayed on TV, in movies and other media to tens of millions. They get reinforced at home, then in school, at work, you name it. The result? This typecasting stains the fabric our collective consciousness. So much so that it influences the way we think about people on levels we’re not even aware. Scientific studies on unconscious or implicit bias confirm this.
               Everyone has bias. Each of us believes some ideas and ways of being are better than others. Some call it preference. A more destructive form is called prejudice, which can result in treating some people unfairly: consciously or unconsciously.
               These forces repeatedly play out in media, isolated personal experiences and hearing (and re-telling) seemingly harmless jokes. Bundled together, messages become so interwoven in our lives that we no longer may be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.
               Some folks might remember the hit TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies.” That 1960s sitcom and 1993 movie depicted the Clampett family living in the backwoods who unwittingly struck oil, became millionaires and moved to Beverly Hills, California. I’m embarrassed to say it was one of my favorite TV shows. Back then it seemed so innocent and harmless. The program depicted the Clampetts as kind, honest and generous. It also portrayed them as uneducated, socially unsophisticated and naïve.
               Who hasn’t snickered at the typical media portrayal of ‘hillbillies’? I’ll wager most folks who come from those places don’t. It’s easy to laugh at those stereotypes, but it’s dehumanizing. Damage is being done in ways we often don’t realize. That’s because when we see and meet these people in real life, we bring with us our biases.
Respectable depiction?
               Stereotypes are hurtful because they form a pattern of oversimplified beliefs about a group of people. That belief can become fixed in our minds. As a result, if a person holds some kind of power – say a judge, boss or employment officer, fairness can go out the window. Most times, unintentionally. Together these powerful forces conspire to create systematic barriers to access to essential needs, such as fair housing, equitable education and adequate healthcare.
               The rich and famous, as a group, suffer relatively little from being stereotyped; they have power and influence. The same cannot be said regarding less fortunate groups. For them, to be stereotyped is oppressive.
               So the next time you hear a joke about a group of people, stop and think: how is what I’m listening to affecting the way I think about and act toward them? Does it move me closer to or further aware from true understanding?

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