If you ask a random person on the street what social justice is (once you explained to them that “social justice is that thing where people complain about sexism and racism and homophobia a lot’), they would probably say that social justice is about “not stereotyping people.” You shouldn’t think people are all the same just because they’re black! Or women! Or gay!
I disagree. I think that it is possible to identify traits that people who are members of certain groups share and that, in fact, it is quite impossible to do social justice without doing so. I mean, imagine if you took it literally. “You shouldn’t say women have body issues, lots of women don’t have body issues, that’s SEXIST! You shouldn’t stereotype people of color as being poor, lots of people of color aren’t poor, that’s RACIST!” If you want to talk about how marginalization affects a group of people, you have to talk about traits and experiences that members of that group tend to have– that is, you have to stereotype. The entire concept of “the [insert marginalized group here] experience” is a way of stereotyping!
For that matter, social justice advocates often defend stereotyping: just look at Schrodinger’s Rapist. It is perhaps unfair to some random dude who just wants to talk to a woman on the bus that many women will assume that he’s creepy, disrespectful of boundaries and possibly dangerous, but a sufficient number of random dudes on buses are creepy and disrespectful of boundaries that this is a reasonable stereotype to have.
Instead, I would like to propose three kinds of stereotypes that are bad:
1) Stereotypes that don’t acknowledge you can be a member of a group and differ from the stereotype. No duh, this is bad, because it is incredibly inaccurate! Of course, I think it’s more common as a way of strawmanning other people’s stereotypes than it is as an actual belief. If you interpret someone saying “men talk less than women” as saying that every man talks more than every woman all you have to do is find one laconic woman to disprove it; if you interpret them as saying “on average men talk less than women” (which is, you know, what people who say that are usually actually saying) then you actually have to do science to prove it’s not true and science is, like, hard. (It’s not true, by the way.)
2) Stereotypes that are factually incorrect. If most Muslims were terrorists, you’d be perfectly justified in being suspicious of the Muslims who moved in down the street. Given that most Muslims do not support terrorism, much less actually commit suicide bombings, you’re being an asshole. Similarly, since most depressed people are not lazy bums who are just making a big deal about being sad, and most self-injurers are not emo kids doing it for attention, and most people with ADD are not faking it, those stereotypes are wrong– not morally, just factually.
The problem with believing wrong things about people is that you will act in wrong ways towards them. The correct way to act if someone is lazy is not the correct way to act if someone is suffering from a neurological condition that makes doing things hard if not impossible. The correct way to act if someone is probably a terrorist is not the correct way to act if someone is not a terrorist and just happens to worship Allah.
3) Stereotypes that are not actually stereotypes, they’re norms. “Women should reclaim their femininity!” is not actually a stereotype of women, it’s a norm about what women should be like. A stereotype is an “is” statement– this is what this group is like; a norm is an “ought” statement– this is what this group should be like. It is perfectly possible to have a stereotype without having a norm; the social justice community does it all the time. I can believe women tend to have body image issues without believing a woman who’s comfortable in her body is a failure as a woman; I can believe people of color tend to be poor without believing that people of color should be poor. I talk here about why (a lot of) norms are bad.