There appears to be a common misconception when it comes to the definition of racism and stereotyping. Most people often confuse the two, assuming them to mean the exact same thing. And although, on the surface, these two words may seem analogous, they are not. They are two very different terms, with very different connotations.
Racism, in my opinion, refers to a group of innocent individuals/people who are discriminated against primarily based on their ethnicity or the colour of their skin. Being a racist encompasses sentiments of arrogance and superiority, where one race/ethnicity believes they are better, or more superior, than the other.
However, racism is not only about the attitude of individuals/people, but is also deeply rooted as a product of historical quintessence, particularly European imperialism from the 16th century. And, as I said earlier, arrogance, in addition to class and economic-standing, further adds to what is now emblematically called “racialized discrimination.” Consequently, in many large parts of the world, white skin is typically associated with higher economic standing, while other skin colours rank much lower.
Furthermore, the subsistence of homogenous societies, where a great lack of inter-cultural exposure, communication, and migration, in effect, triggers “racist” sentiments. Such groups of people are conditioned to recognize what they see as “familiar” and what they see as “alien.” Hence, this sort of “racialized solidarity” creates boundaries, discourages, and condemns (or perhaps even rejects) the diversity that exists in the world.
Stereotyping, on the other hand, is discrete in the sense that an individual or groups of people, belonging to a certain gender, ethnicity or religion, are discriminated against simply because they have a history (that may be good or bad), which in turn leads to “generalizations,” where certain groups of people are all categorized as concocting the exact same behaviours, thoughts, and characteristics.
Stereotypes, unlike racism, do not necessarily arise out of sentiments of arrogance or superiority (or simply out of thin air), but typically out of feelings of intimidation, fear, and loathing towards a particular group of people. And, usually, there is always something that triggers these feelings, which in turn, generically tarnishes the image of particular races/religions.
A prime example is the way in which the West stereotypes against Arabs and especially Muslims, in particular. There is no denying that Muslims have a history of violence; and by Muslims I am referring to the “extremists” and “fundamentalists.” These types of Muslims are the ones going around declaring “jihad” or holy war upon the non-Muslim world. And ever since 9/11, these negative stereotypes against such Muslims have only intensified. And we can’t blame the West for stereotyping these groups of people now, can we? Such Muslims are the ones who have given a bad name to themselves, by indulging in violence and inflicting atrocities among their fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Most people generally develop stereotypes when they are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information that they would need to make fair judgments about certain groups of people or situations. And, so, in the absence of the “total picture,” stereotypes in many cases allow us to “fill in the blanks.” Societies then, often innocently, create and perpetuate stereotypes, but these stereotypes often lead to unfair discrimination and persecution when the stereotype is unfavourable; as is the case with the Western stereotype against Muslims. I know there are good, peaceful people who follow Islam; “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims, who place more focus/emphasis on the positives and reject/ignore the negatives, but due to the negative image of Muslims, even the genuinely good people will be stereotyped against.
So, why do we generalize in the first place anyway? Surely these generalizations have their roots in experiences we have had ourselves, or perhaps read about in books or magazines; seen in films or on television; or have had related to us by family and friends. And, in many cases, these stereotypical generalizations are reasonably accurate.
Yet, at the same time, in virtually every case, we are resorting prejudice by ascribing characteristics about a person, or groups of people, based on generalized assumptions, without fully acknowledging all the facts. And most often, we have stereotypes about people who are members of groups with which we have not had primary or firsthand contact. Hence, it is very unfair to make baseless assumptions, because although there may be some underlining truth behind our reasons for stereotyping, we need to realize that humans (from any particular race or religion) are not inherently evil; it is the way they are brought up, their surroundings, the things they are taught (or forced) to learn that shapes and molds them into what society would normally consider a very “good” person or a very “bad” person.