Let’s talk about stereotypes. Award season is right around the corner, and while I’m not writing this with any specific book in mind, it’s good to think about stereotypes when considering award contenders.
So what is a stereotype? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about this much better than I can, but I’ll give it a shot. Here’s what Merriam-Webster brings to the table:
Stereotype (n) - an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic
Let’s take this apart. A stereotype is, indeed, a belief. But it’s not necessarily a belief about “all” people in a group. Melissa Harris-Perry, for example, talks about multiple stereotypes of Black women: the “mammy,” the “hyper-sexualized woman,” and the “angry Black woman.” In this sense, there are multiple “single stories” of Black women (to borrow Adichie’s term). The fact that (most) people don’t believe that any one of these stereotypes applies to the entire population of Black women doesn’t mean that they’re not stereotypes.
“Untrue”--that’s another problem. Is it untrue that some East Asian people play the violin? That some Latinx kids play soccer? That some Jewish people have relatively big noses? And why shouldn’t they? (Says the Jewish girl who has fought for a proper bagel and lox.)
The problem with stereotypes is that they are reductive, not that they are categorically false. Which brings me to my personal definition:
Stereotype (n) - A reductive story, told about a person or people, that intentionally or unintentionally dehumanizes them.
So what does this mean for book evaluation? I think it means we need to pay attention when characters are given stereotypical traits. Is the Native character just there to be noble and stoic? Does the South Asian character just talk about math and samosas all the time? Does the Black best friend do more than be the Black best friend?
If a character includes a stereotypical trait, it’s important to ask whether the author actively counters that stereotype. If you want examples, go read something by Gene Luen Yang, who could teach a master class in defeating stereotypes. In The Shadow Hero, for instance, Hank’s mother begins the book as a stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom” and, over the course of the book, becomes fully human and 3-dimensional. American Born Chinese (SPOILER ALERT!!!) employs a different strategy to nullify Chin-Kee, who embodies every grotesque, inhuman stereotype of a Chinese man: Chin-Kee winds up beheaded and exposed as the non-human thing it is.
So ask yourself: When an author introduces a stereotype about a character, does s/he work to counter that stereotype by humanizing the character? Because as much as we wish books existed in a vacuum, they don’t; including a minor East Asian character whose defining trait is playing the violin is loaded, and different from including a minor White character whose defining trait is playing the violin. Neither is necessarily bad--what matters is whether all of the characters are allowed to be fully human.
If and when someone brings up a concern about stereotypes, it’s important that we listen, especially if we were previously unaware that something is a stereotype. That lack of awareness is itself a privilege, and we should welcome the chance to remedy our ignorance.
-Allie Jane Bruce
Ed. Note 10/19 - Thank you, Tsujimonster, for pointing out my mistake with "s/he". That is 100% my error, and I'm sorry. I should have used "they" so as to not exclude people who identify as nonbinary. I'm going to leave it as-is in the piece, for maximum transparency and to avoid confusion, but I'll say here: In the 2nd-to-last paragraph, where I say "...does s/he work to counter that stereotype...", I should have said "...do they work to counter that stereotype...." -AJB