Saturday, December 17, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Good Stereotype

By Susan Esther Barnes

A friend of a friend recently made a couple of comments on Facebook, saying that Jews are good with money and with numbers.

My response to him was, "Maybe you meant your comments about money and numbers as a compliment, but promoting sterotypes about any group is neither accurate nor helpful, IMHO."

He then said, "Promoting sterotypes is different than accepting them. Why fight something that is sterotypically good instead of accepting it? Hebrew language is based on numbers as well so mathmatics and language are taught from a young age, there is nothing wrong with it. IMHO."

Unfortunately, Facebook isn't a good place to have a discussion like this. A blog isn't either, really, but at least it's a place where I have the room to set out my thoughts on the subject.

I will start by agreeing that there is nothing wrong with teaching math and language from a young age. In fact, as far as I know, in most countries and cultures both of these things are taught from a young age. Everyone learns language, certainly, and most school-age children have at least some basic math skills. There is nothing special about Jews teaching these things to kids.

There are, however, several problems with repeating stereotypes of any kind, including those that may sound, on the surface, to be positive.

First of all, stereotypes are generalizations placed upon groups of people, and as such, they are inaccurate. If you take a random group of Jews, you will find some who are great with money and numbers, some who are terrible at them, and some who are somewhere in between. The same would be true of any random group of people from any religion or country.

Add to this the fact that many people were not born Jewish, but joined us through conversion. Do you think something in the conversion process suddenly makes these Jews better at numbers and math than they used to be? Is there something magical about learning Jewish history, traditions and rituals that imparts these skills upon converts? I think not.

Second, when people say Jews are good with money, this often refers to all sorts of other, less benign-sounding sterotypes. For instance, people say Jews will try to bargain you down on prices, they say Jews will try to cheat you in financial situations, they say Jews will charge you interest rates that are too high, they say Jews run the banks in this country, etc. Like the stereotype of "good with money," some of these things may be true of some Jews, but they are untrue of the majority of us.

Third, sterotypes like these can be demeaning. If I am Jewish and I am good with numbers, by applying this sterotype to me you are insulting me. You are saying that my years of studying, my hard work, my hours spent doing homework and memorizing multiplication tables don't matter. You are saying my skill with numbers is not due to my hard work and diligence, but is rather simply a product of my religion or perhaps my genes. This kind of thinking causes resentment when a Jewish person does better than a Gentile in math classes. It is the kind of thinking that can lead to antisemitism.

Further, if I am Jewish and I am not good at math or numbers, you are telling me I am flawed. Gentiles can be bad at these things, but if I am Jewish and I am bad at them, there is something fundamentally wrong with me. You are telling me I am not, truly, one with my own people. I am, in your mind, an outlier, unusual, not okay.

Fourth, there are Jewish laws about lashon hara, the "evil tongue." The Chafetz Chaim, a great scholar of lashon hara, said that not only should we not say bad things about people in public, we should not say good things about them in public either. That is because saying something good may prompt someone else to say something bad.

For instance, if I say, "Isn't Betty's dress lovely today?" someone else might say, "Yes, usually she looks like such a slob." Similarly, if you say, "Jews are good with money," it might prompt someone else to say, "Yeah, that's how they got away with all those mortgage scams."

So please, dispense with the stereotypes. I am, like you, an individual. Please have the courtesy to try to see me as I am, not as you think people like me ought to be. And I promise, I will try to do the same with you.


  1. You make some good points.

    Going a bit beyond this, though, I find that you and I have at least one thing in common (among the sea of differences).

    It's not so easy to categorize either of us, ie. put either of us in a box.

    I think that's a good thing!

  2. I know stereotypes are normal incorrect in the aspect of a percentage of the people. All groups are stereotyped, Oklahomans, hill billys, Jews, Muslims, Christian, Business owner, Humans. Even as a group of humans as a whole we are stereotyped by other Humans. Let the ignorant be ignorant, for they are the ones that tend to be the happiest. ;). You can't fix stupid. The comment I made was neither to give Jews a compliment or to hurt the feelings of a Jew. Even my family has Jewish heritage. The comment was to poke fun of the people that do not understand anything about the individual people. As in a person that thinks she is active in the "church" does not know that it is called a Temple or a Synagogue and would therefore regress to the use of stereotypes to explain that which they do not understand.

  3. Esser Agaroth - Thank you. I would say we have several things in common, despite our differences.

  4. Not all Jews are good with money and numbers. That's for sure; I'm very sorry to say...

  5. we can't leave without stereotypes - it's a psychological fact. If we didn't have stereotypes, we would go crazy analyzing every person as a different individual who is nothing like others. Anyway i see why bad stereotypes should be fought, but i really don't understand why the good ones should.