I took an awesome class this year--Social Cognition of Gender with Dr. Virginia Valian--and we talked a lot about sexism, racism and stereotypes. Brace yourselves, I'm about to get all academic on your a**es. It won't be too painful, I promise.

She introduced me to a concept called "schemas," which are basically a cognitive representation of something- anything really. We have schemas for everything: social situations (how you behave at a party is different from how you behave in class), places (a library vs. your home), social roles (what you expect from your mother vs. your boss), and, of course, gender and race. The schema drives the first reaction you feel when you meet somebody or prepare for a certain situation because it happens automatically and without your awareness. Kinda crazy, right? Our brains are too cool. Well, sorta.

She stressed that schemas are neutral representations based on observation and what we are taught as soon as we're born. These are different from the "isms" and stereotypes, which need to have an actual intent or motivation behind them (those suckers are usually subconscious though, DARN THEM!). So a schema for women says they are nurturant, caring, and maternal, while men are task-oriented, athletic, and great leaders. Our stereotype is that they are exclusively fit for these traits, that all men and women are examples of these schemas, and that they do not change over time, situations, etc.

Schemas are almost impossible to change, but that doesn't mean we can't think about them before stereotyping somebody, or think WE'RE the ones being stereotyped.

So, the next time somebody gives you a weird look, don't jump to think it's because you're a woman or because s/he is racist. The (sad) fact is that half the time when you do that, you put yourself in a defensive position. That makes the other person think you're being hostile. That makes them hostile. That makes you think you were right in thinking they were sex/racist! That jerk! See where I'm going with this?

Just think about it. And, in the meantime, be sure to check our her book and tutorials. Okay, now I'm asking for too much. I don't expect you to do that, but extra credit for everybody who does!


At Mon Aug 11, 03:54:00 PM Anonymous said...

You might want to read Kant. If I recall correctly, schemas (in this form) were his idea. They are, like everything else in philosophy, strongly contested.

At Mon Aug 11, 04:03:00 PM frau sally benz said...

Thanks for the heads up, I'll definitely check it out. A quick search led me to some interesting stuff already.

In psychology, schemas are a pretty standard, accepted concept. The thing there is a lot of back and forth about is whether there is a difference between a schema (again, neutral) or a stereotype (based on attitude). Some psychologists use the words interchangeably, but I agree that there is a difference.


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