We all know how bad stereotypes can be. They are used by the sort of people who feel the need to malign those of a certain race, sex, class, etc. But do we have to ditch the idea of stereotypes altogether? Can’t they be used in ways that are both fun for the user and relatively innocuous for the subject?
Why, yes, it is possible. In fact, we Yalies do it all the time, though some may deny it. True to our stereotypically overachieving natures, we’re on both sides of the process. There’s the supply side: Take random townsfolk in the Midwest and ask them what they think a Yale student is. You can guess the standard replies: Elitist, wealthy, ambitious, prodigious, sinister members of that secret society — what’s its name again? — er, Skull and Crossbones?
And then there’s the demand side: We dole out collegiate stereotypes with the best of them. Hence the ubiquitous jokes about the number of Ivy League lightbulb changers (e.g., zero at Dartmouth, because there’s no electricity in Hanover). The truthfulness of our many stereotypes can vary. For example, many of us easterners imagine students at Pepperdine University in Malibu lounging on the beach between classes, though this is probably less than accurate. Moving up the veracity scale, we might picture the typical dorm room at Hampshire College to be brimming over with empty Visine bottles, a sickly-sweet smell hanging in the air. Or more positively, we’d likely picture a driven ballet dancer or concert pianist as Juilliard’s standard student par excellence.
The truth is, stereotypes can be quite useful when employed in an appropriate manner. The trick is not to get too far from reality, and to keep things light.
Back at Yale, a system that places students into residential colleges at random isn’t the best for perfecting dorm-based stereotypes — though many continue to try anyway. But, just as our fellow students are free to choose their friends and clothes, they are also free to elect a major. And just as, in the realm of politics, a burning desire to save the whales often correlates with support for increasing the minimum wage, certain distinct personal styles seem to come as package deals with specific majors.
Next time you find yourself alone on a leisurely walk around New Haven, take a look around. Bring the Spanish truism, “Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are,” to life with a dash of stereotypical panache.
See a group of people clad head-to-toe in black, Prada messenger bags swinging from their shoulders, chain-smoking Gauloises? Chances are you’ve just spotted some art majors. Encounter another group in which more than one person is donning a meritocratic Siemens-Westinghouse backpack? Sounds like a bunch of Group IVs to me, or whatever they’re called now. And if that backpack just happens to be on any of the beleaguered souls walking back to campus down Prospect early on a weekday morn, the chances they’re a science major approaches probability one.
Of course, you’re not going to be accurate all the time; such is life. Just as that kid with the trombone probably isn’t a music major and not all who stroll out of Lizzie teas are registered in the English department, not every student coming out of Mory’s in a tweed jacket or scampering out of Labyrinth with a newly minted tote bag is going to be a student of the humanities. Pegging history majors is a cop-out anyway. Given its popularity, bestowing that moniker upon students at random would yield a good success rate. More points go to those who can accurately pick out those few religious studies or archaeology majors.
There will always be those who deny the utility of stereotypes. And some will no doubt be offended by any use. But, to me, there’s no better way to deal a blow to the bigots of the world than by taking what they use as tools of malicious discrimination and recasting them for good-natured purposes. After all, Yalies, like all humans, have a natural predilection to classify individuals based on group identities. It’s time we all admit this, and allow ourselves a bit of fun in the process.
Eric White is a senior in Saybrook College.