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.