As a black person I should have natural rhythm, like fried chicken and wear chunky jewellery.
Well one out of three isn’t bad.
Like numerous people from the TVCollective I’ve watched a few episodes of Rastamouse; a children’s cartoon about a crime fighting, reggae loving Jamaican mouse. Whether you love or hate it, think it’s the best thing that ever happened to diversity or the worst that happened to TV since Mind your Language, there is no denying that Rastamouse is full of stereotypes. It is a cartoon after all – and cartoons are not the subtlest of mediums. However stereotypes in real life are incredibly dangerous and have a bigger effect on our lives than we even realise.
I have just finished reading a fascinating book called Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele that explores the new science of stereotype psychology. The author details a number of experiments that look at how we are affected by stereotypes. For example the psychologists gave a group of black students a simple golfing exercise and told them it was to measure natural athletic ability. The scientists then gave a similar group of black students the same golfing exercise and told them it was to measure strategic intelligence. The second group on average took four strokes longer to complete the experiment. (When they gave the experiment to two corresponding groups of white students the result was the exact opposite). Stereotypes are deep and ingrained; black people are natural athletes we aren’t meant to be intelligent. The opposite is true for white people.
With more experiments the author demonstrates that the bad golf is due to a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”. We are aware of stereotypes and when we are placed in situations that might confirm them we try and avoid them or disprove them. The irony is the stress of trying to disprove them causes us to perform worse.
To demonstrate this they set up another experiment that looked at the fact that women are often stereotyped as being bad at maths. If the women took the test in a room full of men and knew the test would be judged by men they did considerably worse than if they did the test surrounded by women knowing they would later be judged by women. In the room full of men the women were under threat of confirming a stereotype and they did worse under the added pressure.
Working in television we will often find ourselves being the only BME, or person from a diverse background, working on a production or in the entire company. The stereotype threat frequently hangs over us all. The fear is we under-perform because of it and in so doing reinforce the negative stereotypes.
I believe that there is some hope at combating stereotype threat: Critical Mass. The more of us doing something, the less individuals feel the stereotype threat, whether that is consciously or subconsciously. If I think I am the only black journalist the bigger the chance I will fall prey to the stereotype threat. The more I talk to other black journalists, see other black journalists and socialise with black journalists the more I will feel that there isn’t a stereotype that I singlehandedly have to disprove. I can just concentrate on making the best programmes irrespective of whichever stereotypes I might conform too.
Which brings us back to Rastamouse. Is the cartoon a good thing or a bad thing for our children? If Rastamouse ends up being the only “black” cartoon on TV then we will always be acutely sensitive of every stereotype that it might confirm. The answer must lie in critical mass and that means I won’t be criticising Rastamouse but campaigning for more obviously ethnically diverse characters and programmes. Stereotypes must be beaten and can be beaten by quantity and diversity.
(First published on TheTVCollective.org on 11/02/2011)