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No. 26 (March 1959)
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It is not only the white races who have stereotyped ideas about other peoples; coloured races are just the same. In Africa, where the white man used to appear almost entirely as a master, the Negroes had their stereotyped notions of the European, and they were not always flattering. Look for instance at this West African carving of a European corporal, obviously the Negro sculptor's idea of the white man, proud and powerful, but by no means very likeable. Only better mutual understanding can remove such stereotypes.
(Berkeley Galleries, London, reproduced from
UNESCO Courier)


One of the world's great evils is prejudice between nations and races. But just what is prejudice? How does a prejudiced mind work? In this essay the famous American psychologist Otto Klineberg explains it in very simple and clear language. It gives all of us, Maori as well as Pakeha, a chance to look into our own minds to see whether the pictures of other races we carry in our heads are based on prejudice or really correspond to the truth.

In my hotel, I heard someone say, “Oh, she has that Scottish stubbornness, you know”. A book review in a newspaper used the phrase, “With true Gallic wit”. At the theatre during the interval, I caught part of a conversation in which a pretty girl said to her escort, “I know that all Americans have a ‘line’”; and in a mystery story that I read before retiring, there was a reference to “typical German thoroughness”.

These are all instances of those “pictures in our heads” to which Walter Lippman gave the name of stereotypes. They are typical of the ease with which most of us generalize about peoples, usually without even stopping to think where such “information” comes from, and whether it represents the truth, the whole truth, or anything like the truth.

There are certainly very few, if any, among us who have not succumbed to the temptation to stereotype nations. One might almost describe the tendency as inevitable, or at least very nearly so. We know that Englishmen are reserved, and Irishmen pugnacious. We have heard it all our lives; besides most people agree with us. If we are asked, however, how we know, we would not easily find a suitable answer.

One of the earliest careful studies of this tendency was made by Katz and Braly, in 1932, in connexion with the stereotypes held by Princeton University students. The technique was simple.

Each student was given a list of traits, and a list of nationalities; from the first list he chose

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the five traits which he regarded as characteristic of each national or racial group.

The results showed a fair degree of unanimity, e.g. out of 100 students 78 described the Germans as “scientifically minded”, and 65 described them as “industrious”, 53 students used the adjective “artistic” for the Italians, the same percentage described the English as “sportsman [ unclear: ] ike”, 79 agreed that the Jews were “shrewd” and 54 stated that the Turks were “cruel”, 84 regarded Negroes as “superstitious” and 75 described them as “lazy”.

On a more extensive scale, a study conducted in 9 countries under the auspices of Unesco in 1948 and 1949, showed that such stereotyped thinking could easily be found almost anywhere.

The British, for example, thought of Americans as primarily progressive, conceited, generous, peace-loving, intelligent, practical. The Americans regarded the British as intelligent, hardworking brave, peace-loving, conceited and self-controlled. The Norwegians described the Russians as hardworking, domineering, backward, brave, cruel and practical.

The Most Peace-Loving Nation? Our Own Of Course

The “self-image” is also revealing. The British saw themselves as peace-loving, brave, hard-working, intelligent; the French saw themselves as intelligent, peace-loving, generous, and brave; the Americans saw themselves as peace-loving, generous, intelligent and progressive. All the groups agreed on one item: their own nation was the most peace-loving of all!

Few people realize how much the existence of stereotypes may colour our relations with other people, even to the extent of seeing them differently as a result.

What we see is determined in part by what we expect to see. If we believe, for example, that Italians are noisy, we will have a tendency to notice those Italians who are indeed noisy; if we are in the presence of some who do not fit the stereotype, we may not even realize that they, too, are Italian. If someone points that fact out to us and says: “Look, those people are Italians, and they are not noisy”, we can always dismiss them as exceptions.

Since there is no limit to the number of cases that can be so dismissed, we may continue to cling to the pictures in our heads, in spite of all the facts to the contrary. This does not always happen. Stereotypes do sometimes change in the light of new experience, and evidence for this is presented later. If we have had them for a long time, however, we surrender them with great reluctance.

The Razor Moves from the White Man to the Negro

A number of significant investigations have shown in a very dramatic manner how our stereotypes may determine our perceptions. Some years ago Allport and Postman, psychologists at Harvard University (Cambridge, U.S.A.) showed a picture to one student, and he described to a second student what he saw in the picture. The second then told the third what the first had told him; the third told the fourth, and so on, through a series of 8 to 10 reproductions. Then a comparison was made between the final result and the original presentation.

One of the pictures used in this investigation showed a scene in a subway in which, in addition to a number of people seated, there were two men standing, one a white man, the other a Negro. The white man was dressed in working clothes, with an open razor stuck in his belt. It so happens that the stereotype of the Negro held by some people in the USA includes the notion that Negroes carry with them an open razor, of which they make ready use in an argument.

The psychologists were able to demonstrate that in half of the groups who served as subjects in these experiments, before the end of the series of reproductions had been reached, the razor had “moved” from the white man to the Negro. In some instances, the Negro was even represented as brandishing the razor violently in the face of the white man. This does not mean that half of the subjects in the experiment saw the Negro with the razor, since if only one person in the chain “moved” the razor to the Negro, the error would naturally be repeated by those that followed. Interestingly enough, this did not occur when the subjects were Negroes (who rejected the stereotype), or young children (who had not yet “learned” it).

Another study conducted by Razran in New York points in the same direction. A group of college students in the USA were shown photographs of 30 girls, and asked to judge each photograph on a 5 point scale, indicating their general liking of the girl, her beauty, her intelligence, her character, her ambition, and her “entertainingness”. Two months later, the same students were again shown the same photographs, but with surnames added. For some of the photographs Jewish surnames were given, such as Rabinowitz, Finkelstein, etc.; a second group received Italian names, such as Scarano, Grisolia, etc.; a third group Irish names such as McGillicuddy, O'Shaughnessy, etc.; a fourth “old American” names like Adams and Clark.

The investigator was able to demonstrate that the mere labelling of these photographs with such surnames definitely affected the manner in which the girls were perceived. The addition of Jewish and Italian names, for example, resulted in a substantial drop in general liking, and a similar drop for judgements of beauty and character. The addition of the same names resulted in a rise in the ratings for ambition, particularly marked in the case of the Jewish surnames. It seems clear that the same photographs looked different just because they could now be associated with the stereotype held by these students.

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If a great many people agree that a particular trait is associated with a particular nation, does that make it true? There is fairly widespread theory to the effect that “Where there's smoke there's fire”, or, in other words, that the very existence of a stereotype is, to some extent at least, an argument in favour of its truth. Otherwise, the argument runs, where does the stereotype come from? How would it come into existence.

There is, however, a good deal of evidence that stereotypes may develop without any kernel of truth whatsoever. We all know how widespread is the notion that intelligent people have high foreheads, yet scientific investigation has failed to reveal any such relationship. The stereotype of the criminal as bearing in his features the mark of his criminality is widely accepted, but it is equally without foundation.

The stereotypes frequently change. In some cases it may be argued that this corresponds to a real change in the people; in others, however, it seems much more likely to be due to circumstances which have little or nothing to do with the group concerned. The Dutch sociologist, Schrieke, has for example studied what people have said about the Chinese during the course of their residence in the state of California, U.S.A.

People Stay the Same but Their Reputation Changes Completely

When the Chinese were needed in California, in order to carry on certain types of occupation, they were welcome there. During that period newspapers and journals referred to them as among “the most worthy of our newly adopted citizens”. “the best immigrants in California”, they were spoken of as thrifty, sober, tractable, inoffensive, law-abiding. This flattering picture prevailed over a considerable period of time, but around 1860, presumably because economic competition had grown much more severe, there was a marked change in the stereotype of the Chinese. The phrases now applied to them included: “a distinct people”, “unassimilable”, “their presence lowered the plane of living” etc. They were spoken of as clannish, criminal, debased, servile, deceitful, and vicious.

This startling change can hardly be accounted for by any real modification of the characteristics of the Chinese population of California. The most acceptable explanation is that when it became advantageous to reduce the competition from the Chinese, the stereotype was altered in a direction

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This sculpture of Lord Kitchener, done by a West African, is another example of the white man seen through the eyes of a coloured race. As in the photograph on page 40, we see a majestic, almost godlike figure, more feared than loved. (Berkeley Galleries, reprod. from Unesco Courier)

which would help to justify such action. In this historical case it seems reasonable to conclude that the change in the characteristics ascribed to the Chinese throws doubt on the notion that stereotypes must necessarily contain some truth.

Brave and Chivalrous — Savage and Lazy

Another Dutch sociologist, Den Hollander, has studied the historical changes in the stereotype of the Hungarians in Europe. He points out that

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for centuries after the migration of Hungarians to Central Europe, they had a bad reputation, and were regarded as culturally different, and therefore inferior to Europeans generally. During the 15th and 16th centuries, however, when they joined in the war against the Turks, they were pictured as a brave, devout, and chivalrous people.

By the second half of the 18th century their popularity had again declined, and they were described as savage, lazy, egotistical, unreliable, and tyrannous. This picture changed again a little later, when the Hungarians became romanticized and idealized. Den Hollander believes that the image followed the pattern of political inter-relationships; it seems unlikely that there was sufficient transformation in the character of the people to justify the change in the national image.

One significant study may be cited which demonstrates the manner in which stereotypes may develop without any basis in truth. The American sociologist, La Piere, studied the attitudes of residents of California towards first and second generation Armenian immigrants in Fresno County in that state. There was almost complete agreement that these Armenians had more than their share of faults, and the general attitude towards them was relatively unfriendly.

La Piere proceeded to question non-Armenians as to the reasons for their [ unclear: ] antipathies, and he was able to classify the answer into three stereotypes. In the first place, it was stated that Armenians were treacherous, lying, deceitful. In actual fact, when measured by the criterion of business integrity the Armenian merchants turned out to be equal and frequently superior to others. In the second place, they were alleged to be parasites, making excessive demands upon charitable organizaions, free clinics, etc. Actually, such demands by them were less than half of what would be expected in terms of their proportion of the population.

Finally, it was said that they had an inferior code of morality, and they were always getting into trouble with the law. In fact, police records showed that they appeared in only 1.5% of Police Court cases, although they constituted approximately 6% of the population. La Piere concludes that all of these stereotypes have one factor in common, viz. that they are definitely false. This does not mean that stereotypes never contain any truth. It does mean that they can develop without any truth whatsoever.

There is, however, the possibility that a little truth may enter into a stereotype through the back door, so to speak. A Frenchman, with considerable experience of international meetings once said that when he had occasion to address such a meeting he usually did so in a rather oratorical, flowery, “Latin” style. He said that otherwise his Anglo-Saxon colleagues would be disappointed! When he was with other Frenchmen he reverted to a quieter, more matter-of-fact, [ unclear: ] “un-Latin” manner, which really suited him personally much better.

In this case, the stereotype itself determined his behaviour under certain circumstances, and undoubtedly reinforced the conviction of the Anglo-Saxons that they really knew what Frenchmen were like.

More rarely, the stereotype may operate in reverse. A member of a group with the reputation for frugality, may go out of his way to spend freely, and tip lavishly; if the stereotype calls for lack of punctuality, he may make it a point to arrive at his destination well before the hour specified. Since, in that case, as was indicated before, he will probably be regarded as an exception, the stereotype will still prevail.

How Prejudice Can be Removed

In London a Unesco study conducted by H. E. O. James and Cora Tenen, showed how personal experiences might affect the nature and content of stereotypes. What they did was to obtain from schoolchildren their opinions of other peoples, particularly of African Negroes, and bring them into contact with two able African women teachers, who spent a few weeks in the schools.

The “before and after” picture is very striking. As an example, a child before the experience stated that “I do not like black people; it's the colour; it makes me nervous; they might be savage, they are different in nature to us, more savage and cruel sometimes, so you don't trust them ever”. The same child after the experience said: “Miss V. and Miss W. were nice people. There does not seem any difference between them and [ unclear: ] s except the colour. I think the Negroes are like that—just like us, except for the colour. I like them. They are nice people”.

The authors give many examples of similar changes that occurred. Stereotypes cannot always be modified so strikingly nor so fast, but the fact that they can be changed at all as a result of experience is itself encouraging.

An important first step will be taken if we treat “the pictures in our heads” with a strong dose of scepticism, and if we keep our minds closed to stereotypes and open only to facts. No one is denying the existence of national characteristics.

A knowledge of them can aid our understanding of people, as well as our enjoyment of the varieties of behaviour and personality that are found in different parts of the world. We need to make sure, however, that the “pictures in our heads” correspond as closely as possible to reality.

(From an article in Unesco Courier)