Protestant Stereotypes

Jay’s “Around the Web column”:/2008/05/04/around-the-web-11/ that featured the “Missions for Dummies post about how Latin Americans ‘are touchy feely'”: has been rolling around in my head for some time. Mostly this is because I have spent a lot of time reading cultural history of America as background for my new research project on World of Warcraft and have been thinking a lot about American theories of selfhood, markets and commodification, what constitutes human flourishing, and so forth.

I was struck by Irwin’s (the Missions for Dummies guy) insight that ‘Latins’ are ‘touchy feely’ since, in much of the United States, this is a stereotype that ‘white ethnics’ (Italian American, Irish American, Jewish, etc.) have of themselves — that they hug, kiss, and touch each other with a frequency and gusto that is a bit unseemly. The other stereotypes that I’ve heard from my friends in these communities is that ‘their people’ are 1) too loud and 2) prone to serve Too Much Food at family functions – or any functions really.

Now, an anthropologist you always want to ferret out the unexamined side of the contrast — the ‘what is taken for granted in my assumptions’ that goes unsaid. In this case I think what these stereotypes point to is not some distinctive way that white ethnics act, but an implicit contrast with the anglo-protestant norm, which appears to be that anglo-protestants prefer to sit together without touching, silent and hungry. Which is, actually, not a bad way of summing up a certain interactional style which I must admit I have witnessed in certain areas of rural Wisconsin and Minnesota during my time with local church parishioners there.

There are other bodies of stereotypes which, when taken together, form a coherent system that perhaps says more about the implicit assumptions it makes rather than the minority group it is describing. Consider, for instance, stereotypes about groups which have never been widely or successfully missionized:

Jews: good with money. Educated. Once small business owners (tinkers, green grocers), now doctors and Lawyers. Secretly already run the world. Extremely hard working.

Chinese: Excellent business men. Taking over the world economy. Extremely hard working. Educated. Once small business owners (restaurants, laundrys) now Math and science experts.

Japanese: Took over the world economy in the 80s. Extremely hard working. Educated. Ingenious engineers. (in California/Hawaii: once plantation workers and gardeners, now doctors, dentists, and optometrists).

South Asians (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh): Incredibly hard working. Once small business owners (convenience stores) but now taking over the worlds of computers science and engineering. Educated.

It is these sort of stereotypes which implicitly inform ill-thought research projects to find the genetic code that makes Jews and Chinese people so smart. But when considered together we can see that they say more about the people making the statements than the people described in them. I would argue that these sort of steretypes express deep-seated themes in anglo-protestant culture currently experiencing a wave of nativism greater than anything we’ve seen in a century and a half: a sense that work is enobling but that prosperty and virtue are antithetical, and a plain-speech tradition which sees erudition and education as corrosive of an authentic and morally valuable simplicity.

This is, of course, an extremely simplified picture of both the streotypes and the ‘other side of the contrast’ — perhaps a bit too “sadness of sweetness” and unnuanced. But… it was what I was thinking of this morning. Happy Monday!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Protestant Stereotypes

  1. “But when considered together we can see that they say more about the people making the statements than the people described in them.”

    Indeed. And from my touchy-feely Latino perch, may I suggest a really great couple of reads that touch upon some of the ancestral origins of anglo-protestant stereotypes of Hispanic American peoples? I’m thinking of James McDermott’s “England and the Spanish Armada”, which does a superb job of demonstrating the way in which the Medieval Anglo-Spanish (anti-French) alliance was gradually disassembled by a peculiar form of proto-national Elizabethan chauvinism and xenophobia that gave way to the Black Legend.

    The second book is also historical, with an anthropological twist, and turns on its head the argument that Iberian Catholic missionaries were Medieval-style colonizers gripped by an evangelistic and exorcising religious mania that gave rise to an irrational and unjust social type, by contrast with Elizabethan Puritans, who were more “modern” spiritual gardeners. The book is “Puritan Conquistadors”, by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra.

  2. I wonder if Rex couldn’t press his case a bit harder and observe that in the cases of Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and Indians the common thread is fear of people who appear to have gone to far in embracing what were once seen as Anglo-Saxon virtues. This isn’t the WASP looking down on people of color; this is the WASP afraid that he is losing his once dominant position. So the stereotypical attributes are quite different from those that look north to south and depict those in the south as more emotional (less rational), more touchy-feely (insufficiently individualized).

  3. Well anxiety that minority Others are going to displace you is a pretty standard thing to happen to majorities — particularly in the US. Consider fears of migrant workers from Mexico or stereotypes of Korean convenience store owners: both groups with histories of Christianity.

    We’d need real data to parse it out in detail, of course. But I imagine that there are two things going on here: first, a fear that some minority groups will ‘out-suffer’ anglo-protestants (by working harder, which speaks to protestant anxiety about not suffering enough) and then also general (and historically quite deep) suspicion of market mechanisms, their ability to produce wealth without work, magically, and some people’s seeming special access to them (it could be Jews, but protestant elites can also be suspects of this more populist, agrarian impulse).

  4. I’m just wondering if you couldn’t be more subtle, like, say, Aihwa Ong in _Flexible Citizenship_. There Ong observes that wealthy Overseas Chinese pose a special problem for their neighbors, including Chinese Americans who came in earlier waves of Chinese immigration. The immigrant is supposed to arrive poor, work insanely hard in unsavory conditions, and gradually claw their way up to middle or upper-class status. Immigrants who arrive with heaps of cash, buy houses in Beverly Hills, and immediately start throwing their weight around in local cultural and political circles are a whole new kind of perceived threat. I suspect that much the same is true of successful Indian or Korean entrepreneurs.

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