Learning to See Ourselves as Inferior
Posted by BroadBlogs
“I asked my teachers not to tell anyone that I was doing well in school because I was afraid I’d get beaten up.”
This quote comes from a young black man, freshly admitted to Brown University, who was telling a reporter about his struggle to get good grades at a high school where academic attempts were punished for “acting white.”
Why would doing well in school take on a sense of “whiteness”? Or merit punishment?
It all goes back to something called “internalization,” which happens when society ends up embedded in our own minds.
When children are born they don’t know much of anything, and are faced with a seemingly chaotic world that lacks meaning. But we need to cope. So the mind unconsciously categorizes what it observes. And the vast majority of the following appear white: Presidents of the United States, Congress, scientists, doctors, CEOs, major historical figures, teachers, professors. On the other hand, majorities, or large numbers, of the following seem to be black: basketball players, football players, baseball players, rappers and entertainers. In movies, TV shows, music videos, and in the news criminals, gang members and the poor are often black.
Unconsciously fitting a complex world into simple categories, stereotypes arise. We all do it. After a while – somehow in the back of our minds – smart successful people too often come to be associated with whiteness, while sports stars, rappers, criminals and the poor can come to be connected to blackness. And early in life the mind doesn’t discern the history of discrimination that lies beneath the patterns.
We grow up hearing we shouldn’t stereotype, shouldn’t be racist, but the messages can linger unless we become conscious of them and work hard to rid them. We find evidence of this in psychological tests like Harvard’s Implicit Bias test, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When people take this test, most learn that they’re more racist than they had thought. So much so that about half of the black test-takers also have a preference for whites.
So consider young African Americans in school, having internalized these stereotypes. Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, a black sociologist and a black physician, wrote a piece called “Rumors of Inferiority” for The New Republic a few years back. The stereotype gnaws at the minds of young black kids, they said. And people tend to live up to – or down to – expectations.
Howard and Hammond suggest that the children unconsciously fear competing academically for fear of failing, and proving the stereotype. They refuse to play on a field where they think they can’t win, rejecting the value of academics outright. And, they punish anyone who doesn’t go along. Instead, valor in areas like sports is praised. Unfortunately, academic achievement is a much surer route to success.
Interestingly, the threat of “acting white” arises primarily in integrated schools. Perhaps when children are competing in all-black communities they don’t fear doing worse than whites and proving the rumor of inferiority true. They may also have more black role models and a greater focus on the achievements of African-Americans, boosting the children’s faith in themselves.
The only way to overcome the loss of faith that accompanies the stereotype is to become aware of its existence and critique it. When prejudice plays on the unconscious mind, it doesn’t occur to us to rethink. But when we understand the history of discrimination that led to privilege for some and underprivilage for others, and when we see what many Black people have accomplished despite the obstacles, we understand that the stereotypes are not true. And faith can be restored.
February is Black History Month