Identity Anxiety (part 2 of 2)

Continuing with the talk at UC Berkeley’s Law School on “Implicit Bias, Identity Anxiety, and Structural Racialization Subtexts” there were some interesting findings worth sharing.

To introduce the topic the speaker discussed her own internalized anxiety around her Irish heritage in a Anglo dominated company. In sum, the threat of being stereotyped as not a good worker because she was Irish decent was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it made her more likely to make mistakes, typos on memos, things like that. However in another context where race was the elephant in the room and not ethnicity, it was addressed early on in the process. This got the anxiety out and alleviated the fear of judgment.  If we find ourselves tiptoeing around someone because of their identity, is it best to find a way to discuss it? I think so.

It reminds me of a sitcom I saw years ago. I don’t remember the show, but I remember the episode. A new guy was hired at the main character’s office. The new hire was a black man. The main character noticed and thought about how to convince the new guy that race didn’t matter to him. Should he simply say: Good morning buddy, or mornin’ bro’, etc. He didn’t want to sound racist but began to fret over being misinterpreted in his greeting. Then at the climax he saw the new hire coming towards him down the hall. In his anxiety he tried to casually walk past and then said, “Hello, black man.” I always laugh at this, perhaps because I could relate. In our effort to make things work we can end up making things go awry. It’s called cognitive depletion.

On the flip side this can be dangerous. The study discussed at the talk found that implicit bias on the part of police could have a more dangerous impact than explicit bias. They found that openly racist white police officers may be more likely to stop a black man, but white police officers that were afraid of being viewed as racist were more likely to become violent in such encounters! The anxiety of trying to not be racist led to violence! Counter intuitive it seems, but those struggling with this stereotype threat will make the wrong decisions. It’s hidden prejudice that can be worse than the open threat.

So whether you’re afraid to critique a Latino child’s homework for fear of looking racist, you choose to tolerate female circumcision in an effort to be respectful of other religions, or you support unlimited abortion because you do not want to appear sexist, you could be doing more harm than good.


About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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