This is a continuation of my quest to demystify the phrase “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know” which always implies “so this stereotype must be true.” Here I focus less on those found in games and more on those found in American culture. For Black history month, it seems appropriate to review these particular stereotypes about people of color. After all, these things do come from somewhere …just not where most of us tend to think.
The Welfare Queen
Black culture has long been accused of being matriarchal, but the power of that idea lies in the implied derogation of the term. Of course, a matriarchal family is no better or worse than a patriarchal one, but through the lens of the latter, it is seen as weak. This stereotype is a two pronged attack: First, on black men, and second a condemnation of the black family. The Welfare Queen arises from the myth of the all-powerful black woman who runs the family, runs the man out of that family and milks the government for a welfare check every month. All of those have a disappointing history of it’s own.
The movements throughout the 20th century to develop housing projects in various cities within the United States were an outgrowth of the movement to continuously improve the welfare state. The Great Depression left a deep impression on Americans and the social safety net continued to be mended from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s years up until President Ronald Reagan’s nomination. Gaining access to that safety net was more difficult for Blacks than Whites, and employing the “separate but equal” theory, two separate and unequal standards were created for applicants. For a Black family to qualify for welfare benefits, such as public housing assistance, the men of the family were often not allowed into the residence . Fathers were separated from children, husbands from wives by deliberate policy. Mothers moved into the apartments with their children, while fathers could do nothing but seize what little opportunity his family had for decent housing. Dividing the Black family actually has its genesis in slavery where families were divided as a matter of economic policy. The modern myth of the matriarchal black family began there, and the Welfare Queen is part of the extended legacy of that practice.
As the data goes, the welfare queen is absent from it. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, black and white families were equal recipients of financial welfare — white families received 41% as well as blacks. Today, black and white families still apply in equal amounts at 31%. Black families on welfare have been decreasing since 1985 — and continue to decrease while the data for white families has remained steady for 10 years. There is no Welfare Queen. It is a myth sold to citizens to encourage stereotypes, misrepresent groups of people, and trivialize the lives of millions of Americans.
The Lazy Black Person
This goes hand in hand with the Welfare Queen. This stereotype arises from the myth that blacks are lethargic and just outright lazy, requiring the muster of the whip to motivate them into productivity. Amazingly, this stereotype originated in American chattel slavery; a time when Blacks worked a thousand times harder than any other race in the country.
Ever hear of Sambo? Sambo is the trope of the unusually happy, but extremely lazy black male. They were eager slaves, easy to laughter and childlike to such an extent that they required the strong hand of their master to be productive. I think this is another enduring example of the power of the human mind to self-delusion. Slaves worked long, long days and could still be considered lazy. To add insult to injury masters imagined they were happy.
In reality, people of color have historically been some of the hardest working individuals in the country. They built houses, farmed vast plantations, cooked, cleaned, learned to read, sing, raise their children and that of others …this goes on and on. Needless to say, this stereotype is founded on nothing we could describe as truth.
As with other stereotypes, this still persists today. People of color, and especially the males, are thought of as unintelligent freeloaders looking for a good time and who will do anything to avoid hard work. There’s only one group of people in this country who have systematically avoided hardwork and forced said work upon other groups. Yet they are widely considered enterprising, hardworking people.
The Bad Racist/Sexist
There’s a very pervasive stereotype out there about Good People. It states that only Bad People can be racist or sexist. This can be spotted in any conversation where racism/sexism is brought up and some guilty man and/or white person gets upset and defensive about defining what is and is not racist/sexist. This stereotype helps to derail discussion of the topics by attributing these things only to Bad People (Nazis, Klan members, and Chauvinists are their ilk). The worst racism/sexism comes from Good People.
I’ve done racist/sexist things and I’m not immune from doing them in the future. I am who I am, because I grew up here like many of us. And “here” is a racist/sexist place with those things often enshrined in law and embedded in culture. None of us is untouched by this. By this stereotype, everyone in the country is a bad person and that’s one of the fundamental problems of the good/bad binary. It places people into these little neat, rigid, comforting boxes whose goal is to make Us feel better about not being like Them. But good people do bad things, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. The worst racism comes from “good” people. They are the people who believe that because they have good intentions everything they do necessarily has good consequences. Racism and sexism persist because of this. It’s the “good” people who perpetuate the systems.
Guilt is usually the reason for the swift denials and passionate defenses of “good” people, but the proof is in the pudding. If the consequences of your actions/inactions perpetuate things you’d ordinarily call bad if a Nazi did it, then you’ve got to confront it. We can’t be immune to critique and beyond reproach; if someone calls us out, we have to confront it and do our best to correct it. Guilt is a very personal issue and it’s often of no good use. Goodness must be defined by actively working against these things we think are so evil, especially when it comes to ourselves. It’s not about pointing it out and patting ourselves on the back for noticing. If we’re not actively pushing back against it, we’re not any better than Klan members or card carrying sexists. The worst offenses are the racism and sexism we don’t see in ourselves due to the Good Person stereotype. It makes it possible for us to ignore our own racism/sexism and prevents us from examining the ways we contribute to problems.
I have shorthanded the -isms here, but it’s not because racism and sexism represent the totality of the issues we face. There are dozens of ways in which we all discriminate against others based on stereotypes.
This has been studied exhaustively and the results consistently report the same findings: stereotypes harm us, negatively impacts our lives, and reduces economic opportunity for the individuals and groups targeted by them.
Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. – Source: Reducingstereotypethreat.org
The consequences are well documented and researched. When we – including gamers – use stereotypes to pass judgement on a person or group, we take something away from them and shutdown opportunities. There’s no such thing as a harmless stereotype.
Another thing with stereotypes is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. If a myth is invented which says that a certain group of people are known for a certain set of qualities, society will seek opportunities to make it their plight, such as what we saw during the Jim Crow era. So the stereotype served to reinforce prejudice and bigotry, to give truth to the lie. This is how ancient stereotypes persist into today; its a remarkably effective strategy that only self-awareness can begin to dismantle. The average American has no conception of our history and do not question the origin of such stereotypes. Instead, we chalk it up to “stereotypes come from somewhere, you know, so they must hold some truth.”
Signaling is when a member of a certain group becomes self-conscious about a stereotype based on cues from their environment. This signal then impacts their performance from that moment forward and usually in a negative way. For example, perhaps one of my gamer buddies is from Russia and he’s listening in on a voice chat conversation within our guild. He may be reluctant to speak knowing it will color the way people look at him and it could diminish his performance in-game . This happens in games like League of Legends routinely, except voice chat isn’t even required for these signals to set them off. It doesn’t help that fellow participants in any given match are quick to throw around racial slurs and who immediately think of negative things when they know a player from a different country is in their game.
Gamers posture, just like any other group. We have signals we send to those who are inside and those who are outside of the group. With stereotypes, those signals can often exclude groups of people by making them feel like outsiders — even when they’re insiders.
A great example is the way female gamers are viewed by the community at large. We all know they exist, yet the myth that this is a boys club persists — and we all act accordingly. Should a woman determine she’s got something to say about games, she’s shouted down in the worst possible way. But there are racial stereotypes as well and to make matters worse the games themselves are usually the worst offenders when it comes to signaling.
It’s been pointed out years ago that the races in World of Warcraft were inspired by various cultural steretotypes. This can be observed by anyone who logs into the game. What makes them stereotypes rather than say, presentation and celebration of those cultures, is that they don’t draw on any truths that actually define the culture. Instead, they romanticize white perceptions of those groups because they are comforting tropes for the target audience. Few developers actually work with the groups they attempt to present in their games, nor do they make the effort to hire on people who could help them with that. This makes it deliberate, however benign their intentions must be. I don’t think it’s asking a lot for a little self-awareness in our games development. The industry won’t get it perfectly right, but Bioware has shown us that passionate effort is warmly welcomed, very successful, and highly rewarding for fans and developers alike. They never get it perfect.
In America, it’s the time of year when we celebrate black history, but if we really want to start seeing non-white people we have to unlearn our stereotype vision. In this particular community, we have to be much more self-aware and interested in these issues as a whole. I’ve seen game developers try to be more open and more aware the past 2 years, but it’s been painful and slow and shows a certain reluctance to change. I hope we can keep pushing the envelope and do significantly better in 2014.
1 Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson. See Query 14: Laws.
2 The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – A documentary about the Pruitt-Igoe housing project of St. Louis Missouri. The information is derived from the living testimony of mothers and wives who lived through it. Available via Netflix.
3 Stereotype Threat: Theory, Process, and Application by Michael Inzlicht and Toni Schmader (p. 21)