America has a mission statement. And using that mission statement to stand up to bigotry is how we will save the soul of America.
Right now, as always, toward the end of the semester in my “Interpersonal Relationships and Race” course, I teach my students the social psychology of what it takes to stand up to bigotry. All through the course, I have been teaching my students the differences between important intergroup concepts: prejudice is not bigotry is not racism. All through the semester, I have been teaching my students to understand the power to damage social interactions carried by interpersonal-intergroup anxiety. All through the semester, I have been building to my standing-up-to-bigotry lectures.
To get my students ready for those lectures, for that new understanding, from Interdependence theory proper (1) I have developed and introduce to my students my levels-of-interdependence hypothesis:
“Whenever a social (non-verbal, verbal or symbolic) cue in social interaction creates or magnifies interpersonal anxiety, the interaction between two people will shift from a casual level of interaction to an intense, identity level of interaction.”
Less formally, the hypothesis describes what can cause an interaction to quickly shift from a “…hey, how’s it going” casual kind of interaction to a “…what did you just say to me!?” intense interaction moment. With that hypothesis, over a number of lectures, I teach my students how to analyze how this happens by giving them a tool, a model, for seeing the stages of social interaction (2).
Every actual, imagined, or implied (by observation) social interaction goes through five stages:
Teaching the concepts and the model, I am giving my students tools they can use to analyze and understand social interaction. Learning how to use those tools my students begin to see why interactions between people from different demographic groups can activate neo-diversity anxiety (3) and cause real problems in everyday social interaction. Not only that, but giving them real-world examples to analyze, my students also learn how to analyze in what stage of an interaction that interaction anxiety took over in a variety of neo-diverse social interactions gone bad.
Having learned how to use these conceptual tools, my students are then ready to understand how and why anti-group slurs have a dangerous and damaging power in social interaction. In the most intense lecture of the class, I analyze the power of a whole host of anti-group slurs; racial (ni****), sex-of-person (bit**), ethnic (greaseba**), bodily condition (cri*), mental-health-condition (reta**), religious (sand-nig***).
Then I ask my students the most important question of the semester.
What are you prepared to do?
In that classroom moment, I am not challenging my students to become politicians or even to become political. I am not challenging my students to take on the task of building social movements, to participate in a protest, or even to just vote. No, none of that.
I am challenging my students to consider this question: What are you prepared to do in your everyday social interactions when someone you are interacting with refers to people as a stereotype, uses hate language against interracial marriage or hate language against marriage equality for gay, lesbian and transgender people, or speaks of women in a demeaning way, or uses a racial slur? That’s the challenge I call out to these students who have enrolled themselves in my course called “Interpersonal Relationships and Race.” I ask, “…is it bigotry on your part, to be silent when your interaction partner uses anti-group slurs? Is your silence, is your silent tolerance for intolerance, bigotry?”
I ask and then I go silent.
Slowly I move my head left to right, back to left, letting my students see my eyes scan the room. Silent, I let everyone in the room feel me looking at each and every one of my students.
And in that moment, no student dare disturb the sound of my silence.
Then I answer for them, and the answer is “Yes.” Showing tolerance for intolerance is your bigotry by your silent agreement. Now my students’ eyes are on wide on me, pleading with me:
“But what am I supposed to do?”
I can see that question on their wide-eyed faces. I can feel that question in the quiet of their squirming in their seats.
I will not, I do not, of course, leave them squirming. Just when I can feel they can’t take the tension much longer, I begin talking to introduce a research-based strategy for standing up to bigotry during a social interaction (4).
To set that up, I remind my students of the five-stages of social interaction. I do that to show them what hearing an anti-group slur does to the social interaction itself; it introduces uncertainty about how to proceed; wait, what? (stage-2). It is in stage-2 where people begin to go silent with worry; how will I be treated if I say something?
That worry drives people to try to identify a short-cut way of thinking that will let them avoid the interaction problem created by the anti-group slur; “I’m sure that was just a joke.” Now with both the worry (stage-2), the possible strategy for avoidance (stage-3), a person’s emotional concerns (stage-4) about “who am I” to speak up goes hot and heats up the worry, the chosen strategy, with all that being pushed into the actual behavior (stage-5) of keeping quiet; not speaking up against bigotry.
Now, with their learning of how the model works in real social interaction, my students see the root causes of their own silence in the face of another person’s language-bigotry. Not that they actually agree with the bigotry; not that they are bigots; but that the social force of interpersonal anxiety has taken over outside of their awareness. For my students, from that understanding emerges the most important thing they get from learning to use the stages of the model: How to accept and then control their own interaction-anxiety in the moment. You see, knowing what is happening allows for anyone to take control of the interaction moment for themselves.
With that grounding, I can then walk my students through the research-based strategy (4) for standing up to bigotry. Turns out each of us has the power to influence our social interactions. When the person you are interacting with uses negative racial, gender or ethnic language, do not tolerate it. But, don't call that person names, Instead of name-calling, speak for yourself.
Don't try to tell that person they are wrong. Don't try to tell that person it's just not a good idea to talk that way.
Let that person know your standards for continuing to interact with you. Just quietly, but firmly, express your personal standard for the interaction. Speak into that moment, and speak for yourself. Simply say, "I am very uncomfortable with that kind of language. I find it offensive. It hurts me." Speaking in the “I” is critical to avoid shaming the person. But speaking “…it hurts me” hits the person in stage-4 (identity); who am I to think this person would accept that way of talking.
A very sophisticated set of experiments (4) shows that this strategy has powerful effects on the perpetrator of the language-bigotry. Confronted in this quiet but firm way, the person who has expressed the bigotry now experiences negative self-evaluations (stage-4 identity-emotions). Confronted in this quiet but firm way, the person experiences a hot mix of anger at myself, annoyance with myself, regret, disgust with myself.
With all that heating up in the person, yes that person will also feel anger at being confronted and be annoyed with you. No surprise that that mix of hot emotions (stage-4) motivates the person to lash out (stage-5) at the person who has quietly challenged their bigotry.
Of late, and yes this Fall-2017 semester too, with genuine concern a student will ask, “…but what if the other person ask you why do you even care?” That question is, of course, the other person lashing out by pointing to your demographic group membership to say, “…look you’re not even one of them… you’re not transgender, you’re not Jewish, you’re not white…” Lashing out, that person is implying that all you can ever care about, all you can ever be is a representative of your own demographic group.
How does one answer that insulting attempt to trap you in a stereotype? How? With America’s mission statement, that’s how.
When, this Fall 2017 semester, I was asked about people trying to use that strategy to push one of my students to be quiet, to push my students to tolerate intolerance, I said this: Tell that person, “I care because I am a true American who believes in America’s mission statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
If you believe in the founding principles of America, when anyone who tries it with you that’s what you tell them, that’s the torch you hold up. Now lit up, that torch will shine a light into the interaction moment; that will reduce other people’s use of anti-group sentiments to try to make their point. That light will scatter the roaches of intolerance.
Trusting in and using the light of America’s mission statement is how we can influence our social interactions away from the casual acceptance of intolerance in our interactions with other people. Trusting in and using America’s mission statement is how we will save the soul of America.
That is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was getting at when he said: “The greatest tragedy of this age will not be the vitriolic words and deeds of the children of darkness, but the appalling silence of the children of light.”
You do not have to be silent. Now you have an interpersonal strategy and truth be told, America cannot afford for us to be silent in the face of bigotry. We’ve come too far to turn back now. Being silent would violate America’s mission statement.
Kelley, H.H. & Thibaut, J.W. (1978). Interpersonal relationships: A theory of interdependence. New York (Wiley); Kelley, H.H. (1979). Personal Relationships: Their structures and processes. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers).
Nacoste, R.W. (2006). What Rough Beast: Intergroup Tensions in the Age of Neo-Diversity. Forum on Public Policy, 2 (#3), 556-569.
Nacoste, R. W. (2009). Post-Racial?: Something Even More Bizarre and Inexplicable. Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity, 11, 1-10.
Czopp, A. M., Monteith, M.J. & Mark, A. Y. (2006). Standing up for a change: reducing bias through interpersonal confrontation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90 (#5), 784-803.