Tuesday, February 3, 2015

He is Playing the Race Card

The first college course I taught was a section on General Psychology in Charleston, SC. The demographics of my class was about half white kids and half black kids. We were covering the chapter on Abnormal Psychology, so I gave what I thought would be a fun weekend assignment. Over the weekend, each student was to engage in an "abnormal" behavior in a public place, then record peoples' responses. Students were given safety instructions NOT to break any laws or institutional rules (example: talking in the library) and they were NOT to engage in any behaviors that might be considered threatening to people or dangerous in any way. I gave a few examples of "safe" abnormal behaviors like talking to self, standing backward in an elevator, invading personal space in conversation, etc..

Monday morning I was shocked at the outcome of this assignment. Despite following my safety instructions, almost all of the black kids got into trouble with law enforcement, store managers, and other authority figures in the community. Apparently, if you are a black kid in Charleston, behaving abnormally results in trouble. Conversely, white kids who behaved abnormally received the expected responses of laughing, pointing, ignoring, gossiping and avoiding.

Later when I recounted this story to subsequent classes, white students were typically surprised (as I was) at the differences in public responses to black versus white kids. However, black students hearing the story for the first time knew what the outcome would be before I ever said it. One middle aged, African American student who had children of her own, reported that she raised her kids to keep their hands in full view at all times whenever they were in a store or mall. As a white parent of white children, having my kids keep their hands in full view is something that never would have crossed my mind.

A few years later, an African-American colleague of mine, Anna, requested my help with her son who had recently gotten into trouble at school. Her son, John, was an honor roll high school student with no history of school behavior problems. However, he got into a conflict with another student and became defiant when the principal intervened. His punishment for defiance was expulsion for the remainder of the year. John subsequently apologized to the principal for talking back, but a hearing was set to confirm expulsion.

Anna had me and several other professionals who were familiar with John to speak on his behalf at the hearing. The Discipline Board consisted of three white, male, principals and one white, female principal. I felt the hearing went very much in John's favor, so I was shocked when the panel ruled to go through with the expulsion. I approached the Chair of the Discipline Board and made the comment that an all white, all principal, and nearly all male panel was inappropriate. The Chair dramatically raised both hands in the air and yelled out, "I knew it! I knew someone just had to play the race card!" Anna was embarrassed that I brought it up. It is very bad form for victims of racism to complain about their mistreatment.

Three months later, I was back before the same Discipline Board in support of another high school kid. On this occasion another honor roll student with no history of behavior problems had gotten in big trouble. This second troublemaker was Suzie, a cute, white, female who broke federal law by distributing marijuana brownies to her classmates. The legal penalty for this act is up to 5 years in prison and up to $250,000 fine. Again, the hearing seemed to go well for the student. The ruling? She was told never to do that again and was allowed to return to school the next day.

The Race Card: A term invented by bigots used to quiet victims of bigotry.

How to Write a Personal Mission Statement

Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - Follow the Light

People can have a tendency to drift through life without direction, or worse, allow others to choose their direction. The number one regret of people in the last stages of life is, "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."1 One way to avoid this misfortune is to carefully assemble a unique mission statement rooted in personal meaning and reflecting your own individual values. Refer to it frequently and modify it as your life unfolds.

Consider the following:

1. Your life goals. When you come to the end of life, what do you hope to have accomplished? Make the goals sweeping and broad. Really consider the big picture.

2. Your morals. What does it mean to be a "good person?" Was "good" defined by your parents? Your religion? The laws of the land? Or, do you use universal litmuses like fairness, empathy, or potential for harm to determine ''goodness?" (Hint: The latter reflects a higher degree of moral development.)2

3. Your purpose. Why are you here? What makes you feel alive? What activities make your life worthwhile? Are you drawn to improving yourself? Your society? Both? Do you like to create? Build? Organize? Does the acquisition of knowledge excite you? Do you like to solve problems?

4. Your priorities. Priorities are ever shifting. How will you determine what is the best use of your time right now? Tomorrow? Ten years from now? What causes an issue to change from low to high priority?

Sample Mission Statement:

To have a positive impact on the lives of family, friends, co-workers, and people in my community by:

1. Demonstrating and encouraging curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, geniality, tenacity, and industry
2. Committing to unbiased, logical, evidence-based sources of information and constantly seeking out relevant new research
3. Employing and supporting democratic processes to create a culture of ownership and participation at all levels
4. Changing positions when supporting evidence clearly outweighs disputing evidence for my own pre-existing beliefs
5. Utilizing empathy, fairness, and potential for harm to guide my ethical decisions
6. Developing myself socially, intellectually, physically, and emotionally
7. Employing moderation, patience, flexibility, and the greater good to determine priorities at any given time

1. Ware, Bronnie. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2012. Print.

2. Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development: Vol. 2. The psychology of moral development: Moral stages, their nature and validity.

Monday, February 2, 2015

On Snobbery

I had a fairly unpleasant high school experience. In the middle of my tenth grade year, my family moved from the coast of South Carolina to the Piedmont of North Carolina. My new high school had two distinct social groups: tobacco farmers’ kids and the privileged children of fairly affluent parents from Bermuda Run Country Club, a gated community. Oh, there was a tiny, third social group of transplant kids from the Sea Islands of SC… me.

Universally, the tobacco kids were unsophisticated, but emotionally mature. Each worked on the farm from a young age and gained an adult-like tempering from being productive and from contributing to the welfare of his/her family. The Bermuda Run children were emotionally infantile and inflicted a smug, judgmental snobbery on each other and on the rest of us. Prior to the move, I was honestly unaware of the phenomenon called, “name brand.” I quickly learned that wearing shirts with the wrong animal embroidered on the chest or sneakers with the wrong stripe on the side meant ridicule and a sense of shame.

In retrospect, I give the Bermuda Run children a pass. They were simply mimicking their parents. I can understand this level of immaturity in high schoolers, but am always surprised that any adult would want to extend such puerile behaviors beyond adolescence.  Pretentiousness is rare in the upper class, but pervasive to the middle and upper middle-classes. Most Bermuda Runners fell into these latter categories. Bermuda Run parents universally applied the absurd costumes and manners of sociological “wannabes.” Ironically, pretentiousness does not result from feelings of superiority. It is conversely, a manifestation of extreme insecurity. Snobbery is a desperate clinging to the superficial in the absence of genuine self-worth.

Pretentiousness is a “passive-aggressive” behavior that demonstrates craven hostility[1]. The intent of snobbery is to inflict emotional harm on others. It can effectively harm the immature, but ultimately causes greater harm to the snob him/herself. Snobbery is born of fear, vulnerability, and social incompetence. It serves as a mechanism for generating scraps of esteem in people so small inside that these tiny perceived victories are of value. Pretentiousness is a “short game” that sacrifices intimacy and meaningful relationships for pettiness and cruelty[2].

[1] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201401/how-spot-and-deal-passive-aggressive-people
[2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200906/field-guide-the-snob-some-it-haute

Are We Dancing Bears?

If you want to understand a species, observe the behaviors of its members over time. Bears have specific behaviors that have been exhibited throughout bear history. Bears forage, hibernate, are omnivorous, and so on. While the reactions of one bear in a particular situation may be unpredictable, the general behaviors of the species are extremely predictable.

Likewise, observation of the human species yields similar understanding. Throughout history, humans have always organized into groups, aspired towards moving up in their respective social pecking orders, developed religious systems, fought with groups having opposing views and with groups having desired resources, and so on.

It is possible to train a bear to dance and do tricks. A bear can rise above its nature and learn to do things beyond the scope of the average bear. However, training a bear to dance does not change the behavior of the bear species. The dancing bear is an anomaly and will likely be rejected by other bears in nature.

Individual humans can also rise above their base nature and, using the highly complex human mind, learn to live as relatively enlightened, rational animals. But, an enlightened individual does not change the overall patterns of the human species. Socrates, Plato, Gandhi, the Buddha all demonstrated varying levels of enlightened understanding... but they were anomalies and were ultimately rejected by their species.

The species did not become enlightened by the efforts of enlightened individuals. Instead, the human species simply incorporated concrete aberrations of abstract, enlightened messages into the same systems and patterns that have always existed in humans (i.e. forming groups, moving up in social pecking orders, fighting with groups that have opposing viewpoints, etc.).

I postulate that enlightened beings are no more than dancing bears. They are an interesting anomaly having little impact on the species at large. Bears behave like bears. Let them be bears. Humans behave like humans. Let them be humans. We each have the opportunity to develop our minds and bodies far beyond those of the typical human, but that will not change the nature of the human species.

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