The Danger of doing Good: Forming Stereotypes

(photo credit [photo not of me])
Here’s my basic premise: The person whose only interaction with people of a different cultural/ethnic group is in a serving/charity capacity is likely to form stereotypes about that group based on that limited and extremely isolated interaction.

I myself went to a fairly large, suburban, predominately white church during my formative high school years. I went on three “missions” trips while attending there to: Mexico, South Dakota and D.C. On each trip we worked with a different ethnic group: Hispanics in Mexico, Native Peoples in South Dakota, and African-American’s in D.C. Now, Madison, where I grew up, is fairly diverse, so I had the good fortune of those not being my only interactions with other races, but they were some of the most significant interactions I had had with anyone of Hispanic or Native origin.

When I went to College I met and discovered a large number of other students had had similar “missions” trip experience. Some had even gone to countries in Africa and Asia. However, my more shocking discovery was the number of students who had come from far more ethnically homogenous (read: mostly White) cities, towns and neighborhoods then even I did. In addition, it seemed that in those homogenous neighborhoods, the rare interaction with a person of a different ethnicity typically involved that person in a serving capacity. Even our college campus, Wheaton College, was an example of this. The number of students and facility from multi-cultural backgrounds had been growing, but a large amount of white students primary interaction with different ethnicities was the cafeteria workers.

Now, couple those brief interactions with the limited portrayal of ethnic minorities in the media (again, often overly portrayed in historically oppressed or currently oppressed roles), and then we send them on “mission” trips. This might sound harsh, but I think the feeling behind many of those trips is the chance to “go help those poor unfortunate people.” The combination of all of these interactions creates, I believe, a strong stereotype of other cultures, and not only are they stereotypes, but the are dangers in that the person doesn’t seem them as stereotypes, but as fact, since they have by and large proved true in their interactions.

This is just one of the reason I think so much structural racism still exist in our country. It’s why efforts like affirmative action are necessary and why many voices are still needed to speak up against unjustice and prejudice, yes even racist, treatment.

3 thoughts on “The Danger of doing Good: Forming Stereotypes”

  1. I definitely do agree with this. I think it’s a vicious cycle too, because it’s often easier to sell a cause if it fits within people’s pre-existing images.

    I think that churches who are experiencing the call to go beyond their own culture would be wise to have multiple types of interaction with those cultures. Go and run a vacation bible school, but also be lead in bible studies by the pastor of the church you’re partnering with. Go and build houses, but learn about the economics of the country/region from someone who lives there and has studied a lot about it.


  2. Or just go to other countries and places in your own city where other cultures gather, and just hang out. Have dinner with locals (other cultures are usually much more welcoming than ours), just go be a visitor and appreciate their perspective on life, instead of “an answer to all their problems.”

    Here’s a link Ariah to something I wrote based on an expereince in Nashville:

  3. You are absolutely spot on! Fortunately more and more groups are rethinking this approach and trying to create justice not charity focused trips or projects.

    At least you had racial diversity at Wheaton, I don’t think we had much at all at Taylor – I’m thinking really hard and can’t come up with any non-white staff and a handful of faculty (we had a good number of non-white students). The only exception was Dr. Richard Allen Farmer was our Chaplin for awhile! We were in a corn-field though 🙂

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