Public Prejudice: The alt-right doesn’t think you’re white

HateGroups

Image from Quartz

I’m a quarter Russian. That quarter Russian is also Jewish, but it was handed down by my maternal grandfather. According to how Judaism is passed down, that makes me not Jewish. Well…to Jewish people. I was absolutely Jewish enough for Hitler. I’m what Hitler would have called a mixed-blood, or a mischling, someone who has both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. So even though I am not Jewish, neither of my parents are Jewish, and I’ve never even so much as been invited to a Bar Mitzvah or set foot in a synagogue, in Hitler’s Germany, I’m a Jew.

As we watched neo-nazis and the KKK marching in Charlottesville earlier this month, they weren’t chanting about the removal of statues or the snowflake-y nature of our current society, but they were chanting about Jews. It isn’t that surprising. We know that hate crimes against Jewish people have skyrocketed since Trump’s election. Someone even drew a swastika on a fence here in Durham North Carolina, a place that went almost 80% to Hillary Clinton. Racism, prejudice and discrimination have always been here. Trump didn’t invent them, even if he doesn’t do much to discourage them.

But something has shifted within me since Trump’s election. When I see these people marching with their torches, yelling about how they won’t be replaced by Jews, forehead veins popping with anger, I now feel like they are talking about me. And that’s good in a way. Because research shows that people who are primed to think about the differences between their group and another group actually increase their outgroup derogation.1 Or, in other words, we are more likely to look down on outgroups when we think of them as distinctly different from us. Thinking of ourselves as part of those groups decreases prejudice.

The way that we identify has a lot to do with how much we stand up for causes. Black people are the most active members of Black Lives Matter, because they are the direct targets of the current racial injustices in the legal system. The most visible LGBTQ activists have traditionally identified as LGBTQ themselves. Women are the most involved in securing access to women’s healthcare services, because they are the ones most in need of those healthcare services. It isn’t shocking or surprising that we don’t invest as much in outgroups as we do in our ingroups. Ask your next door neighbor if they’d rather feed their kids or yours given the choice.

Identity is a tricky thing. We often engage in self-presentation efforts, for instance, not wearing your KKK robes to work so your coworkers don’t hate you.2 So the impressions that you receive from someone may not be indicative of the way they truly feel. It may be a reflection of what they want you to see. This is something that the “alt-right” has embraced. When they held the march on Charlottesville, they didn’t look like a group of racist rednecks from the trailer park. They looked neat, well-groomed and well-dressed. That kind of self-presentation is like magic. They want you looking at the right hand so you don’t know what the left hand is doing. Sterilizing a message of hate with polo shirts doesn’t make it any less hateful.

Beyond self-presentation, self-concepts may or may not integrate all parts of one’s identity. That is unfortunate, as our self-concepts help to regulate our behavior.3 When we identify information as self-relevant, it is more likely to motivate us to act.3 Even though I am undoubtedly Jewish enough to be considered Jewish by the “blood and soil” crowd, I had never integrated that piece of my identity into my self-concept. I check the box for white on demographics questions, I am treated as white by people out in the world (i.e. I have white privilege) and when I buy face makeup, I buy one of the 3 lightest shades offered. Ostensibly, I am white. But to neo-nazis and the KKK, I’m not just not white, I’m subhuman. In fact, if you are not a protestant male of pure Aryan descent, the “alt-right” probably thinks you’re subhuman too.

Identity is pretty stable after a point. I won’t wake up tomorrow and decide that my morals and values have totally shifted and no longer recognize myself. But we can grow and change, integrating new ideas and roles into our self-concepts. The concept of identity integration suggests that perceiving an increase in compatibility between two seemingly disparate identities can increase performance on a variety of tasks.4 If we can integrate more parts of our identities, and see them as compatible with one another, we may be able to increase the amount of compassion and empathy we show to the people of color in our community. After all, that community is one of our ingroups.

In the wake of Charlottesville, white Americans have a choice. We hear the “alt-right” talking about immigrants, Jews, people of color and Catholics, and we can decide what we do with that information. We can say we are not part of those groups, and that we abhor white supremacy, but acknowledge it doesn’t really affect us personally. Or we can reevaluate our identities and realize that most of us are at least partial targets of these hate groups, whether we feel that way or not. To the alt-right, you probably ain’t white.

 

  1. Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out‐group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology40(2), 159-172.
  2. Leary, M. R. (1995). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
  3. Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology38(1), 299-337.
  4. Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay‐Positive Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of religion39(3), 333-347.
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Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.