Racism, Identity and Identities: a Question of Salience

Yesterday I had the time to read an excel­lent long form report from Gary Younge—a British reporter for the Guardian—on his upcom­ing depar­ture from the United States, where he has been report­ing for the past twelve years (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/gary-younge-farewell-to-america). Throughout his report he notes that the over­whelm­ing rea­son for his immi­nent depar­ture is the con­tin­u­al sub­text of racism that he iden­ti­fies as present in his envi­ron­ment. Now while there are a swathe of inter­est­ing obser­va­tions and great points in his arti­cle, I want to focus on just one aspect: iden­ti­ty and racism.

In amongst his reflec­tions of the swirling mael­strom of race rela­tions he recounts an exchange he had with his son while walk­ing to school:

Explaining the com­plex his­tor­i­cal and social forces that make such a dance nec­es­sary is not easy at the best of times. Making them com­pre­hen­si­ble to a child is nigh impos­si­ble with­out gross sim­pli­fi­ca­tions and cut­ting cor­ners. Once, dur­ing our 10-minute walk to day­care, my son asked if we could take anoth­er route. “Why?” I asked.

Because that way they stop all the black boys,” he said.

He was right. Roughly twice a week we would pass young black men being frisked or arrest­ed, usu­al­ly on the way home. He was also four, and until that point I was not aware that he had even noticed. I tried to make him feel safe.

Well don’t wor­ry. You’re with me and they’re not going to stop us,” I told him.

Why not?” he asked.

Because we haven’t done any­thing,” I said.

What have they done?” he asked.

He had me. From then on we took anoth­er route.

In amongst all of the social issues going on and the com­plex­i­ty of issues on the street, his son has rapid­ly assessed the sit­u­a­tion at hand and iden­ti­fied a core issue: black­ness. However this isn’t mere­ly an issue with the melanin con­tent of skin, but of some­thing deeper—an iden­ti­ty of black­ness. But some would argue that Gary Younge doesn’t fit the typ­i­cal stereo­type for the tar­get of racial inter­ac­tions, he is edu­cat­ed, employed and is British, not American.

Yet here is where I think the crux lies for our mod­ern soci­ety. We don’t deal well with identity.

Within Psychology the stream of ques­tion­ing that address­es this area is log­i­cal­ly called Identity Theory. As Stryker and Burke write:

Identity the­o­ry began with ques­tions about the ori­gins of dif­fer­en­tial salience of iden­ti­ties in per­sons’ self-struc­tures and why iden­ti­ty salience may change over time (e.g., Stryker 1968; Wells and Stryker 1988). These ques­tions led to the devel­op­ment of the­o­ry con­cern­ing ways in which peo­ple are tied into social struc­ture and the con­se­quences of these ties for their iden­ti­ties. 1

Sounds log­i­cal enough. Certainly for Younge, the black American pop­u­la­tion, and every one of us we are each tied into our social struc­tures by our iden­ti­ties. Not just black or white, but father, stu­dent, work­er, moth­er, wife, sin­gle, mar­ried, and many more.

But in this case what mat­ters is the salience of those iden­ti­ties. When Gary Younge receives an extra frisk­ing at a check­point, or Trayvon Martin was shot dead, or any one of the myr­i­ad of instances of racial abuse, the iden­ti­ty fac­tor that mat­ters is main­ly reduced to one aspect: race. The oth­er iden­ti­ties just don’t mat­ter. All the oth­er iden­ti­ties: gen­der, edu­ca­tion, fam­i­ly rela­tions, are all ignored in favour of the iden­ti­ty that is per­ceived to be most salient: race.

In this aspect we can see one of the issues: we are ter­ri­ble at engag­ing with mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ty fac­tors, and seek to reduce them to a sin­gle fac­tor. Be it race, sex­u­al­i­ty, reli­gion, or many more. In each encounter one iden­ti­ty fac­tor will like­ly be more salient than the oth­ers, and cor­re­spond­ing­ly oth­ers will per­ceive one fac­tor as more salient than the oth­ers in our lives.

Perhaps then the real solu­tion to racism isn’t how to reduce the iden­ti­ty based dis­crim­i­na­tion, but how to broad­en the salience of the per­cep­tion of iden­ti­ty fac­tors. This is a top­ic that I intend to explore fur­ther on this blog, keep an eye out.

For now though, have a read of Gary Younge’s reflec­tions, it is well writ­ten, sober­ing and eye open­ing: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/01/gary-younge-farewell-to-america

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  1. Stryker, Sheldon, and Peter J. Burke. “The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly, no. 4 (2000): 284–297, 287.