Spoiling the Bunch: Stereotypes and the Effects of One on Many

By Kelly J. Baer

It’s a question that needs answering: Does one bad apple spoil the bunch? Well, if you ask American family music group The Osmond Brothers, the answer is no. But how can we be so sure? How much can the actions of one person affect how the rest of a group is perceived? And how much can one person really be affected by a stereotype?

Truly, it is no secret that we are surrounded by stereotypes every single day. Unrealistic beauty standards, media portrayals of love, you name it. And perhaps no demographic is more aware of stereotypes than college students, especially those here on Youngstown State University’s campus.

Everyone has experienced the effects of stereotypes at some point in their life, whether personally or externally. While some are basic generalizations, others can be detrimental to our success. What we can do is learn to identify stereotypes and determine if the actions of one really are the actions of the many. What we cannot do is stand by idly and allow stereotyping to become the new norm.

Consider the phrase “a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch.” This saying has deep meaning and value to many people and is one of the many focuses of the discussion about stereotyping. Can the actions of one person, good or bad, affect the way that an entire group or demographic is seen by others?

I asked a group of YSU students this exact question, and the answer was a resounding “yes.” One student elaborated by stating that “too often the sins of the one condemn the many. When one person makes a bad decision, everyone associated with that person gets viewed differently.”

In a survey conducted anonymously, over half of the participants agreed that they had, at one time or another, grouped together people based on one common person who had acted a specific way. Put more simply, they saw someone act negatively and assumed that everyone that was associated with that person would have made the same decision. Is this fair? Again, over half of the group agreed that it was unfair of them to have made such assumptions, and 45% said that they had eventually found out that they were wrong in their assumptions.

The other side of this social coin has more to do with the majority affecting the individual. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a stereotype is “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.” When asked if they had personally experienced stereotypes or had fallen victim to stereotyping, 100% of participants said yes.

What’s more is that 75% of participants stated that stereotyping directly prevented them from doing something that they wanted to do and 25% said that stereotyping may have directly prevented them. Absolutely none of the participants had remained unaffected by stereotypes.

When asked to list some biases and stereotypes they faced daily, participants wrote things like “being short (5’3”) and female means that people don’t have to listen to me because I can’t be taken seriously. Having a generally small stature means that I’m physically weak” and “being a woman, people often underestimate my strength, and will choose a man to do a task that I am perfectly capable of doing. Mostly female stereotypes are what I encounter.”

What a sad world we must live in where our biological sex and genetically predetermined stature say more about us than our personalities. The things we love, the activities we enjoy, the people we care about, and the dreams we have mean almost nothing when stereotypes stand in the way. One participant wrote “being quiet, people assume I think I’m above everyone else or that I don’t like them. People also assume that since I’m smart I must not need help understanding anything or that I know more than I do.” Just in this statement, it becomes clear that even those who have it good can still be hindered by assumptions made about them.

Despite all of this, however, there is still some good news. Students at YSU are ready to end the negative impacts that stereotyping can have on our society as a whole, and some of them have already begun to take those first steps toward a better, brighter future. The campus organization MALAINA (which stands for Middle Eastern, African American, Latino, Asian, International, Native American and Alaskan) is taking the problem of racial stereotyping head-on by empowering and encouraging students of different ethnic backgrounds to learn more about each other and the cultures they come from. Some students would like to see more organizations like this on campus.

One student suggests that the university offer more “guest speakers, FYE (First Year Experience) class projects, and clubs” dealing with the subject. Another student suggests a “’break a stereotype day’ or event” where we “encourage people to do something that goes against their stereotypes… could be as simple as a boy wearing a skirt for fun or encouraging introverts to talk to someone new and make friends; maybe also tie it to majors, such as a math major making an art project or something like that.”

No matter what, it would seem as though students here at YSU are ready for more diversity and empowerment, and fewer assumptions and stereotypes. Of course, it is not possible to change the entire world overnight. Everyone knows that Rome was not built in a day. But what is possible is for the students here at YSU to become a shining beacon of hope and togetherness in a dark world of separation. We on this campus can become an example for others through our active fight against stereotyping and social division. The more we do to combat this evil, the brighter our future becomes. Tomorrow is a new day, one that we should get to share together. So, let’s put away our preconceived notions and the uninformed ideas we have bout the world and instead look toward that future, and make it even brighter.