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.
- Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out‐group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology, 40(2), 159-172.
- Leary, M. R. (1995). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
- Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology, 38(1), 299-337.
- 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 religion, 39(3), 333-347.