Words by: Xenia Sanut
As restrictive as they may be, stereotypes reflect how society percieves us to be.
They are fixed and oversimplified beliefs about a particular demographic and we see them all the time in news and entertainment. In these stories we see the same echoed narrative – Asians are good at math, Jews are good with money, Latinas are sexy and Italians and Greeks hose down their driveways every day. But why? Where did these stereotypes come from? Let’s break them down.
- Why are Asians good at math?
The ‘Asians-are-good-at-math’ stereotype is an extension of the ‘model minority’ label, a term used to refer to minority groups that achieve a high level of education and financial success in the West. It came about in the mid ‘60s to describe the Japanese-Americans who became successful in the United States despite the discrimination they faced because of the Pacific War. People used East Asian culture as an explanation for these accomplishments as life in these cultures tend to be centred around the Confucian values of hard work, education and familial relationships. Together they help to achieve success, particularly in the maths and science fields, which is how the stereotype was born.
- Why are Jews good with money?
Let’s go back several thousand years to Ancient Rome where it was believed that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus since his disciple, Judas, sold him out for 30 pieces of silver. This animosity towards Jews continued into the Middle Ages when Jews went into “socially inferior” occupations like money lending and finance since the discrimination they faced at the time restricted their job prospects. The association between Jews and money evolved to a perception that they had disproportionate control over the economy, receiving blame for the depression Germany experienced after their defeat in the first World War and in the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis.
- Why do the Italians and Greeks hose down their driveways?
Hosing down the driveway is generally a method of washing away dirt and cooling the air in Mediterranean cultures, particularly during the summer, but it may also relate to the importance of reputation and hospitality in countries like Italy and Greece. The tradition of hospitality came from ancient Greece when people thought that unexpected guests could be gods in disguise. The Italians also have a phrase, la bella figura, which refers to an individual’s reputation or honour, particularly when hosting gatherings. So, both concepts emphasise being a good host and therefore a clean house is a must. If you are living in a township in either country, it is also common for guests to come unannounced, so you need to make a good first impression by ensuring your driveway is spotless.
- Why are Latina women sexy and attractive?
One can trace this stereotype and the sexualisation of South American women to the mid-19th century during the Mexican-American War, a time where both countries were in dispute about where to put the Texas-Mexico border. Popular fiction at the time placed Mexican women in sensational romance novels and portrayed them as more tempestuous and treacherous than the virtuous Anglo-Saxon heroine. This stereotype was used as a tool to entertain American audiences and to portray the perceived power they had over Latin America. It continued into the silent film era and remains to this day in TV shows, films and songs like Ed Sheeran’s ‘South of the Border’ and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s ‘Senorita’.
Stereotypes help us make sense of the world and the people that inhabit it, but we need to navigate them carefully because not all stereotypes accurately reflect the people they categorise. Take it from an Asian girl who loves rice but can’t do math and who doesn’t like tea. Everyone on Earth is unique and complex and no label can ever capture all that we have to offer.