What Muhammad Ali Taught Us About Overcoming Stereotypes

"I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." -Muhammad Ali

     With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, the world took time to remember the G.O.A.T. and all his achievements, both in the ring and in our communities. Muhammad Ali grew up as Cassius Clay in West Louisville, a mostly minority, low to middle socioeconomic, often forgotten part of town. He worked hard to achieve his goal, declaring that he was the greatest along the way. No matter how popular, famous, or rich Ali became, he never forgot about his hometown. Even in his passing, he chose Louisville to hold his historic memorials drawing thousands of people from all over the world. Muhammad Ali will be remembered for a lot of things. When he announced his religious choice and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, he immediately assumed a different stereotype. Or did he?

     Stereotypes are schemas that our brain has developed as shortcuts to solutions in unfamiliar situations. These schemas or scenarios are based on our personal experience or the experiences of others that we observe, perceive, or hear. In most cases, schemas are good. It helps us discern safety and risk without using "trial and error". For example, most of us have never been mugged in a dark alley, but our heart starts beating faster and our breathing shallows when we walk past an alley late at night. By reading that last sentence, you probably noticed a difference in your physiological state. That's our body's way of preparing us to fight or flight just in case we encounter someone who might try to hurt us. Sometimes, our schemas jump the gun and negatively assess situations. For example, a man in a hoodie can automatically be seen as threatening because of the schemas we have associated with men in hoodies. People who are high in self-awareness override these stereotypes once they understand that the schema no longer fits the situation, and then a new schema is formed. Just one problem, people do not always override the stereotypes they have about a subset of people or situations.

"I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was" -Muhammad Ali

     When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, many people assigned to him, the Muslim stereotype. You know, the one where everyone thinks that Muslims are terrorists whose only goal is to blow up buildings and kill people. But Muhammad Ali, the Champ, the Louisville Lip, the Greatest Of All Time didn't fit that stereotype. Muhammad Ali was different. He helped people in need, showed compassion to those who were less fortunate, and stood up for the rights of those who couldn't stand for themselves. Ali was a hero who wanted to bring people together, not tear people apart. How can we deal with this junxtaposition?

     There was research conducted on stereotypes where a group of participants were told the typical stereotypes of a cohort of people. Examples include white men as leaders or asians as mathmatically intelligent. Then, the group of participants were told that the stereotype has changed. White men are no longer seen as leaders, asians are no longer seen as mathmatically intelligent, and so on. The point of the experiment was to determine how easy it is to change stereotypes once they are formed. The researchers found that when the stereotype change is minor such as asians being perceived as scientifically intelligent instead of mathmatically intelligent, it is believable. But when the stereotype change is drastic, people have a hard time believing and accepting it, but it is possible.

"If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it" -Muhammad Ali

     We love Muhammad Ali and what he stood for. We followed the life of Muhammad Ali and determined that he was different. We took the time to assess the individual, resulting in our brains creating a new stereotype specifically for Muhammad Ali. If we can overcome stereotypes about the G.O.A.T., we can overcome stereotypes about the kid from the West side of Louisville, the Muslim who lives down the street, or the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando.