On race relations

As an Army officer, I was trained to be a race relations educator at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) in 1972, and spent a year in Germany leading race relations seminars. I’ve written in a previous post (“Who is a racist”) that it’s not simply a matter of whether one is or is not a racist. Personal racism isn’t a binary, either/or phenomenon. Racism exists along a continuum, between “hardly any racial bias” and “hates people because of their skin color or ethnicity.” Everybody has a place somewhere on this continuum, and where you place yourself may not be where others who know you would place you.

One thing I learned at the DRRI, and still believe, is that you can’t grow up in a racist society such as ours, unaffected by racism. None of us are completely color blind. I’ve known many people who would reflexively deny having any racist beliefs or tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. To admit that you’ve inherited residual racist beliefs or inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white. Another thing I learned at the DRRI was that guilt is a lousy motivator for change. Despite my personal history of ongoing self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I still can’t claim to be completely free of racism’s taint, myself.

In my DRRI training, I learned about both personal racism and institutional racism. I think that there are still a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society; but in this post, I’ll only be writing about personal racism – specifically implicit bias and confirmation bias.

Bias is universal; it’s part of being human. It can be racial, cultural, religious, or political. Implicit bias is often reflexive, unconscious; and it’s not always necessarily a bad thing. I may have a bias for bland food or for spicy hot food, depending on the foods I grew up eating. This may mean that when I eat out, I’m not likely to try a new dish that the menu describes as spicy hot. It may mean that when I choose which movie I want to see at the cineplex, I’m more likely to choose a film whose protagonists resemble me, or who come from my culture. It’s easier to identify with people I see as being like me. It doesn’t mean that I’m racially prejudiced; it’s just my unconscious preference. Being a heterosexual, I may prefer a traditional romantic comedy over a gay-themed love story, even if I’m not homophobic. No matter your race or cultural identity or sexual orientation, you’re biased to choose one thing over another, based on your life experiences.

Confirmation bias is also universal, and usually unconscious. It means that if I’m given new information on a topic that I’ve already formed an opinion about, I’m more likely to believe and remember things that confirm what I already believe, and less likely to have my opinion changed by things that might challenge my belief.

Even if we bear no ill will to persons of a racial or ethnic group other than our own, our beliefs about them may be unconsciously influenced by common stereotypes attached to that group of people. When I lived in Germany, I observed that some of the same stereotypes that have been attributed to African Americans in our society were attached to Turkish “guestworkers” who lived in ethnic ghettos: they were lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, and all the men wanted to have sex with German women.

The biggest remaining fallacy that continues to fuel racial stereotyping is the idea that race is a biological phenomenon. The concept of race as we know it didn’t exist until the era of European colonialism. Race is a social construct designed to justify the exploitation, colonialization and enslavement of that segment of the human race identifiable by the darkness of their skin. Part of the concept is hierarchal: some races are superior to others. In fact, all human beings belong to the same race. If you go back far enough, we’re all kin.

So, now I question whether or not “race relations” is an outdated term, perpetuating the notion of different races. It seems to me that “intra-racial relating” might be more accurate in describing the sometimes troubled relations within the family of man.

The role/goal model

There are many models of human behavior in the field of psychology, among them the psychoanalytic, behavioral, gestalt, and dialectical models. Most have their utility, but none of them is “the best,” or explains everything. A model is just a description or a map and, as I quoted in a prior post, “the map is not the territory.” I haven’t written about what follows in any formal or comprehensive way yet, but I’ve come up with the bare bones of my own model. I think it’s original, and helpful in explaining certain unconventional or extreme behaviors – as well as many common ones. I call it the role/goal model. It has to do with motivation and it’s rooted in social psychology.

We all play multiple roles in our lives, some of the more conventional being spouse, parent, employee (or boss), host, and caregiver. Other roles have to do with one’s profession or skill set, and yet others are unconventional and highly specialized. Behaviors appropriate to one role in a person’s life – for instance sexual expression within a marriage – are inappropriate in other roles. If a drill sergeant behaved at home like he did at work, it would be domestic abuse.

Many behaviors are motivated by the desire to feel good about ourselves for fulfilling the expectations of a given role, whether that role is father, wife, breadwinner, merchant, healer, or evangelist. You may not feel like getting up when the alarm goes off at six, but in service to your role as family provider, you get up on time and prepare to go to work, day after day. The goal of such persistent behavior is the feeling of satisfaction you get from providing for your family’s material needs. You know that if you don’t get up and go to work most workdays, you won’t get a check on payday. You’ll fail to meet the goal of the breadwinner role, your family will suffer, and you’ll feel terrible about yourself.

Many times in my life I’ve heard people say things like, “He did that for no reason!” In fact, people don’t do things without a reason, and a more accurate statement would be “He did that for reasons I don’t understand.” We might have a hard time grasping what would motivate a person to torture animals, or purposefully start a forest fire, or shoot schoolchildren, or coax cult followers to drink a fatal dose of poison. I think this model helps to make such behaviors comprehensible.

The role/goal model explains conventional or extreme behaviors by identifying the role that a person perceived herself to be in at the time of the behavior, and the goal of that role-appropriate behavior.  For instance, a mother who has never acted-out violently in her life might inflict severe bodily harm on a stranger, if he was threatening her children with violence. Some roles, like mother, are conferred by circumstance; other roles are self-conferred and may be secret, or unrecognized by others. Self-conferred roles include Rescuer/Hero, Tragic Hero, Devil, Martyr, Outlaw/Rebel, Victim, Player, and “Secret Agent.” Identifying the role and the goal explains almost any behavior that isn’t due to psychotic mental processes.

By Secret Agent I don’t mean a literal spy {although “spy” is an example of a rare and highly specialized role), but someone who acts in secret, or has a perceived “secret identity.” I think that role descriptor helps to explain many aberrant behaviors, such as serial arson or serial rape. Examples: “They think I’m a Nobody, but I burn down forests.” “Women trust me because they think I’m a nice guy.” People like this get off on not only the feeling of power they experience when they commit their crimes, but on their daily feelings, when they think “Nobody knows who I really am” or “She doesn’t know that I want to rape her.”

A less extreme example is the role/goal analysis of an obnoxious, Bible-thumping street preacher who thinks he’s preaching on the street because God wants him to. What motivates him to persistently shout at strangers who don’t want to listen to him? The role/goal model posits that he’s in the evangelical role, and what could be more important than saving souls? The behavior is motivated by the attendant feeling, not the sure knowledge that souls will be saved. People in such a self-appointed role believe that their objective (i.e. saving souls from damnation) is what’s driving their behavior, when in fact their role-appropriate, goal-directed behavior is motivated by the feeling that they’re doing the most important work of all, God’s work.

The goal of the Hero is to be admired for his achievement or strength. The goal of the Tragic Hero is to get sympathy and to justify his helplessness in the face of insurmountable odds. The goal of the Victim is to gain something by being pitied. The goal of the Martyr is to be admired for her sacrifice. The goal of the Player is to get over on people. The goal of the Rebel/Outlaw is to get away with breaking the rules. The goal of the Devil is to raise Hell. The goal of the Rescuer is to feel powerful and to take credit for someone else’s survival or success. None of these roles exists objectively, but in subjective perception and the attainment of consequent, predictable emotional states. The feeling state is often the  goal of the behavior, although it will be rationalized as role-appropriate and goal-directed.

Emotional expression is modulated by both role and goal. An emotion is suppressed if it’s seen as inappropriate to the role or unhelpful in reaching the goal, i.e. never let them see you sweat if you’re in the Hero role. The emotion is exaggerated for effect if it’s seen as role-congruent and/or helpful in reaching a goal, i.e. the Boss’s display of anger, or the Victim’s tears.