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Racial Stereotypes Go Underground

Quick: What comes to mind first when you think of an African-American? Can't come up with anything? Or too uncomfortable to admit what you're thinking?

Everyone is aware of the racial or ethnic preconceptions, misconceptions and stereotypes that exist in American society. Yet many college students, believe it or not, claim they can't think of a single stereotype about blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Arabs.

As part of a research project, I interviewed more than 80 students at my predominantly white, middle-class campus about their perceptions of race and gender. Most had no problem articulating popular stereotypes about men and women: "macho," "aggressive" and "competitive" for men; "self-conscious" and "sensitive" for women.

As a sociologist and an academic, it's my job to combat misconceptions by putting them on the table, where we can talk about their origins, why they're invalid, and how to dispel them.

But asked to turn their attention to racial stereotypes, many fell silent. More than half claimed they could think of no stereotypes associated with Asians or Hispanics. A third said they had no preconceptions of Arabs. About a quarter claimed ignorance of any stereotypes associated with African-Americans.

What is happening in our country - specifically, on our college campuses - is the result of years of speech codes and "political correctness" that have covered over racial stereotypes and misconceptions but done little to eliminate them. So instead of honest discourse, we get the Bambi approach: If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

But I know racial and ethnic stereotypes still exist: I am an African-American woman from a working-class background at a small, private liberal arts school, where the most well-meaning students unmask their ingrained stereotypes only when they let their guard down. Some of my students, for example, are surprised to find out I was raised in a two-parent household (married parents, at that).

From an educator's point of view, it's tragic to see college students intimidated into thinking it's taboo to speak certain words or ideas associated with racial and ethnic groups. The thoughts and words are there, but students aren't comfortable expressing them.

As a sociologist and an academic, it's my job to combat misconceptions by putting them on the table, where we can talk about their origins, why they're invalid, and how to dispel them. The current climate on campus is a deterrent to that goal. So we're left with a social and political climate that suppresses only the expressions - but not the sentiments.

Cynthia Merriwether-deVries is an assistant professor of sociology at Juniata College.