Saturday, October 27, 2012
My kindergarten was at a predominantly African-American public school in Memphis, Tennessee. If you do the math, you will figure out that my single White mama sent my honky ass to kindergarten in 1979, during the era of a) wide ties and wider afros, b) White flight from rapidly chocolafying city centers to allegedly safer suburbs, and c) the launch of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. Which is all a long way of saying that the majority of my 5-year-old lunch dates were Black kids who were not going to put up with any racist bullshit from me, however honestly I might have come by it.
Instead, my African-American classmates--most of them, like me, hailing from single-parent homes and qualifying for (though often not accepting) free lunches--readily bridged our cultural differences by offering to trade lunchbox items. In the first two weeks of my academic career (which would ultimately consume a full 24 years of my life), I learned that half my cheese-and-mustard-on-whole-wheat sandwich could fetch half a bag of barbecue pork rinds--a far more precious delicacy, by my lights. Half my navel orange was worth three Now-N-Later candies, whose sweetness and tang stuck to my baby teeth far longer than the wimpy fruits of agribusiness. And if I played my cards right, I could convince some small-boned naif with a non-ironic Dukes of Hazzard lunch box that my thermos of orange juice (my mom was into Vitamin C) was well worth his shrink-wrapped jumbo dill pickle (pronounced "pruckle").
(Save the transactional pruckle jokes for my 40th birthday party, please.)
I was a child who liked to eat, born to a mother whose response to stress was not to eat. The divorce had been stressful. Raising two spastic little kids all alone was stressful. My Vietnam War-scarred father's failure to pay child support was stressful. The night school classes to become a CPA were stressful. By the end of kindergarten, my 5'8.5''mother had shrunk to about 110 lbs.
But with the help of my lunch mates, I was maintaining my appetite and my fighting weight. I was also developing, it turned out, an enduring interest in race, class, and culture.
Just as important, I was gaining an early understanding of the limits of personal preference. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have always lunched with Susan of the ribboned chestnut ringlets and pastrami sandwiches, or with Connie of the white-blonde bangs and cross-culturally okay Doritos, or Jennifer of the Little House on the Prairie braids and egg-salad everything.
Instead, I discovered new comfort foods with Roderick and Terrell, Reginald and Zuhara, Terrence and Zonna. I also mastered a new list of light conversation topics: Who do you stay with? (that is, which relative are you living with right now?) Which kind of Baptist is the best? (options included foot-washin', dunkin', clappin', and other behavioral epithets that fascinated my staid Methodist self) and, precociously, What things can White and Black people do together? (hold hands on the playground? yes; swim in the same pool? maybe; get married? maybe not).
Does this make me a better person? Probably not. It probably does give me an edge as a cultural psychologist, because I grew up alongside a culture (namely, urban, Southern, working-class African-American culture of the late 1970s) that some of my colleagues work for years to understand.
But my public education definitely made me a sucky consumer, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. I seldom listen to my iPod in my house, and never in my car. (My lowly ride does not even have a tape player.) Instead, I leave it to chance that the radio will serve up the acoustic equivalence of barbecue pork rinds or watermelon Now-N-Laters. I don't insist on ordering shrink-wrapped pickles from the Interwebs, but instead will demur to almost anyone's fermented foods, be they kimchi or natto or kefir. And though I insist on iron-fisted control in some domains (cf. my kitchen sponge rotation schedule and my color-coded project plans), when it comes to other people's artifacts, I let go of the reins and try to take it all in.
And if I had a kid, I'd like to think--I'd dream to hope--that I would not overly curate his or her or his/her world to my narrow notions of how the accoutrements of daily life should be seasoned or arranged. I hope that I would give random a chance, as my mother did, as did all the struggling families in our community. Because from that randomness--and, in particular, the randomness of a public education--came experimentation, and creativity, and open-mindedness. From that randomness came the ability to appeal to the good side of each other. Maybe now, a return to faith in that randomness would lead us to talk, and trade, and trust our way to a little more peace.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
“I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I’s—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.
Most of us learn “the cogito” at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people’s thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I’s that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.
In other words, much of the time, “You think, therefore I am.” For better and for worse.
An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people’s being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic spurters” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “spurters’” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.
A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people’s I’s is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.
As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people’s negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people’s thoughts deform the I’s of promising students.
As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that “You think, therefore I am” could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.