I talked to a couple of psychology classes about prejudice recently and that got me thinking about stereotypes. We all make assumptions about each other based on something superficial, like skin color or alma mater or clothes or cleanliness or gender or hair or ethnicity or geography or number of teeth or dialect or accent or last name or job title or reputation or shoe size or bra size or grammar or height or tattoo or profession or physical beauty or bank account or someotherdamnthing.

I grew up with stereotypes just like you did, although perhaps not the same ones. In my neighborhood, for example, we assumed that white people thought they were better than colored people, that they couldn’t dance and that they couldn’t be trusted. I think stereotypes are based on truth, even when they’re hurtful and embarrassing. I don’t mean that stereotypes are true, just that they come from somebody’s truth, somebody’s experience, no matter how distorted.

I can’t think that expectations are bad in and of themselves, even if I call them prejudices. If a man speaks English poorly and with a foreign accent, I figure he’s a foreigner. I’ve prejudged him, not a big deal. If I decide not to interview him for the job or not to let him rent the apartment because he’ll be like all the other the dumb Polacks, then we’ve both got a problem. His is more immediate, but my problem may be more serious, because I’m likely to pass on my ignorance and assumptions to others as truth.

The danger is in thinking, although I might be convinced that SUVs tend to be driven by hee-haw ignoramuses, that the particular SUV driver at hand is one of the stupid majority. Some smart, knowledgeable people drive SUVs, I suppose, and I want to keep an open mind lest I label some poor schnook unfairly and take myself out of the moment and into popular culture, where only the conventional is worth discussing.

We’re all susceptible to being stereotyped, from Hmong women to investment bankers. Notice how I assumed those are separate groups? Will all the Hmong, female, investment bankers please stand up? Oh, they’re already standing?

You see? Assuming Hmong women to be short is stereotyping in the raw, but it’s not unkind unless I think there’s something wrong about being short. And there you have it. Values are nearly the only things that count. I’ve heard black people disparaged for a love of music and dancing, rather than of order and analysis. I’ve done it myself. But that makes sense only if one doesn’t think much of dancing and music, if one thinks that order and analysis have some built-in virtues. I think I know better now.

Meanwhile, anybody waiting for people to stop using stereotypes better bring a lunch. And a sleeping bag.

Culture Vulture, which will run next week, now shares this space with From the Edge.