Crouching Tilt, Hidden Discrimination

How does one determine if an individual holds prejudice? Structuralist theory claims that every interactions is coded in a historically constructed context, that every person-to-person interaction is underlain with culturally formulated stereotypes based on assumptions each person has about the other. Structuralism provides that individuals attribute meaning to the other’s actions based first on race and gender. And, for every person, the assumptions are at least a little different. Conducting analysis of the racial structure of a society is based on individual-to-individual interactions, with no two individuals alike. So, we guess each individual acts differently in different social settings, dependent on the racial, gender, etc. composition of the individual’s environment, and the individual’s assumptions about these “indicators.” How the individual acts is a reflection of the individual’s assumptions about the individual’s peers and the environment.

An analogy to bring us to a question: Imagine a friend; have the friend tell a story in front two different groups of the friend; vary the content; you many not have to travel far to get to a memory; imagine yourself.

Why does the character of our communications change in different environments? What does this reflect? And when does this bias become discriminatory and how does someone detect it? Can we create a measure of discrimination that transcends culture? I like to think so. To be fair, I’ll attempt to answer some the posed questions from a personal perspective. Your insights are much more interesting to me than my own.

I tend to believe I change my speech to become more transmissible, understandable. I want the group I’m with to understand the ideas I’d like to convey, and understanding seems kind of habitual. For example, I think I learn much more efficiently if the knowledge is presented in a familiar fashion, a fashion by which I successfully learned information before. I guess this is true for other people. With prior exposure, I have some tangible basis off by which I can make realistic assumptions: I know X studies political science, so X will understand if I convey the idea as similar to this school of thought; Y doesn’t care, so I’ll condense it a lot; Z is four, so use four-year-old language; I’m familiar with this friend’s speech patterns, so this expression conveys what I want to convey (I catch myself using colloquial phrases that I’m consciously against); etc. These are personal as well as categorical. So, when I’m presented to a new person, how they act, especially in the first moments, is reflective of what I am assuming about the culturing of the other (as well as habitualized cultural actions of my own). These assumptions are based on past interactions with groups I, conciously or unconciously, associate with the other.

I would be discriminatory if my speech alterations are fabricated on false assumptions or those I know are cognitively based on false information. However, being exposed to an idea, even tangentally, can influence you, whether you believe it or not1.

The line between discrimination and accomodation in these situations is thin. I’m making assumptions about how the individual learns, and they’re based off of shallow understandings of the other person, and probably shallow understandings of the group I’m associating with the individual. I’m conciously aware that the most inarticulate person may have the most sophisticated understanding. But, this seems a necessary act: Each of us have been in a situation where we could not understand the other solely because of the manner of presentation.

In practice, it’s very hard to discern what is an assumption based on proper assumptions and what is based on culturally constructed assumptions. Structuralism and social psychology can perhaps inform me what this says about me, and other people; sociology may hold the methods.

I’d thought previously that an excellent trove of data could be created through an analysis of university students at dinner. This could further our understand better how gender composition affects speaking power dynamics. A more recent addition (derived from Bonilla-Silva, Rethinking Racism) is to use theories of structuralism. The most telling points, I think, would be the first moments that the sitting group or individual meets the standing group. Comparing these initial reactions, especially following the indivdual from group to group, should tell us a lot about assumptions individuals in the communities have towards race, gender, etc, and, since I would lalalove to conduct this here, a lot about tolerance at Denison. And a lot about power dynamics2. (Some thought derived from this article3, though after the original thought had its foundations.) However, I know how freaking unethical this sounds, and, I suppose, could be. So.. Until further fruition.


1 I wish I could cite it, but I read an awesome study on how birthers – those who don’t think Obama was born in the U.S. – were exposed to the idea that Obama was in fact an American citizen and many records of it exist, they were more likely to believe it wasn’t the case. Absolutely amazing. I think this is related.

2 The original idea was to study power structure by gender composition. That would have been superfun.

3Nice Girls Don’t Ask uses stories to illustrates normative roles for women, and Scaring the Boys (both from a book by Babock and Lascherer titled “women don’t ask,” chapters 2 and 3, respectively) reveals various (mostly economic, some social [successful women less likely to be married and have child) environmental factors which contribute to women’s power/economic minority status, in a hasty summary, how fulfilling societal norms increases individual self-esteem.


3 thoughts on “Crouching Tilt, Hidden Discrimination

  1. Interesting stuff, Gabe!

    I think the study you are referencing is this one: Basically, it suggests that when confronted with factual inaccuracies in our opinions or beliefs, rather than modify our opinions or beliefs, they harden the other way! So if I am an anti-vaxxer and am confronted by actual details/facts/verifiable information about vaccinations and their completely unfounded alleged link to autism, rather than change my position, I become ever more convinced that vaccinations cause autism (another study of this exact phenemonon: This is madness. It suggests that we are doomed to be ruled by feelings rather than facts, and should concern people across the political spectrum.

    I think you are right to consider the line between accommodation and discrimination. In fact, this is difficult to do in practice and to get right. As a truck driver with a fancy liberal arts degree, I often encountered people who I assumed had not read the ‘great books’ I had…until one day I met a guy who listened to books on tape (it was still the days of cassette tapes!) of the ALL THE CLASSICS. He had listened to great works of philosophy, literature, history, drama, etc. – far more than I had ever read! It was a powerful lesson about how our assumptions may be generally right (I was usually correct in my assumptions about the reading habits of truck-drivers) but did not generalize to everyone. It’s hard to know what to do with that, other than to begin to develop a kind of curiosity or humility about the limits of our own judgments when it comes to other people.

    I’m curious about what you think you might find in a quantitative or even qualitative analysis of college students meeting for the first time, or interacting outside their ‘normal’ groups. What might we expect? Why? If we asked people why they said what they said or acted how they acted, do you think they’d have an answer? Just curious.

    And I don’t know that there is anything morally wrong about making initial judgments about how to connect with people – the example of the 4 year old is a good one. The child might be a philosophy prodigy, and so able to track my rarified discourse on the social contract. But it seems like a good thing to try to figure out how to connect. In some ways, this makes me think of the readings we did for the first day – conversation is a give and take experience, and it could be that we engage in that give and take for different reasons: sometimes to expand our horizons and learn from others, and sometimes to prove ourselves right.


  2. Your blog definitely sparks some interesting conversation. In my Women & Literature class with Dr. Mafe, we spoke a lot about whether labels are necessary in speech. Thus, do we need to identify people or categorize people? I argued that labels themselves are, in fact, necessary. Our brain works in a way that it uses schemas; we see something and we automatically know what it is because it has used these shortcuts to create it. Thus, if we see a dog, we think “tail, ears, spots, ect.” and know it’s a dog. Thus, I believe that if we get rid of labels, then our mind would be thrown into chaos. How would we know how to differentiate things or people? However, I do agree that we need to separate the meaning from the label. Thus, just as Lopez spoke about how the word “white” was directly connected to the meaning of “superior,” we need to change our language and reclaim identities. Therefore, we are not fabricating our speech–we are reclaiming it.


  3. Oh goodness. That’s hard. I really don’t know where to start. I can’t imagine well.
    I’d expect higher degrees of panic than with in-group members. Since I’d proposed this in a lunchroom, I’d expect this not to be as strongly present as if it were in an unfamiliar setting. I’d expect higher degrees of embarrassment due to perceived or real cultural differences, and shyness about what the individual perceives these norms might be and how to proceed if they come up (such as saying black, African American, white, Caucasian). Responses for why these occured would I think be said simply that the individual didn’t know.
    I’d expect particularly in the first moment that individuals entering groups with larger number or proportions of other-group individuals would be much more shyness and panic and in extreme cases fear. This could be mostly dependent on the historical interactions the individual had with other-group individuals.


    ascar: I understand the sentiment I think, but I’ve always desired a separate course: Language should be used using as descriptive terms as possible. No longer would we use pet. No longer the “monkey.” No longer “mouse.” The days of the domesticated pan troglodytes and the monitor tracking device are upon us ! !
    A joke, kind of. I don’t know how I feel. It kind of sounds nice, in its Orwellian way.

    Labels do seem necessary, in some regard, whether they be intersubjective and therefore objective terms or mental references, the label and the schemas seem to be evolutionary. One of our more recent readings (White by Law, again Lopez) offered some very interesting ways to reclaim terms. One analogy went similarly as such: You must think that I accept your racist language because I look white, but the reality is that I’m not white, and I think your forms of expression are stupid. That was botched, but I hope it got the point across. The idea is to contradict the dominant belief, the norm. Intelligently, the contradiction might spur the individual to examine the logic of their belief, hopefully leading to reformation. Furthermore, the dominant group is the most privelaged to contradict these beliefs, and should want to do so (argues Lopez).


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