The invisibility of belonging and the salience of difference

Many years ago, long before I knew much of anything about social science research methods, I conducted a small-group activity for my fellow teacher colleagues for an in-service workshop. The gist of it was simply for everyone to note the ways in which they were in the majority or the minority with respect to the rest of their group. Although I never did any formal analyses of the data, it appeared as though people were more aware of the ways in which they were different from the norm than of the ways in which they were in the norm. That is, they listed more characteristics along which they were “different from the majority” than “same as the majority.”

This surprised me, since I expected that people would notice all the ways in which they were just like the norm and how a handful of individuals were different—reinforcement that they belonged to the dominant group. I can even propose an explanation for this based on psychology research I know now, noting that people use similarities to recognize differences. But if the results I saw from this little activity were to be believed, people noticed how they were different, moreso than how others were different.

Looking at it now, with slightly older and more jaded eyes, I suppose this egocentrism isn’t so surprising: People are afraid of losing their dominant status and are quick to notice where those privileges might be at risk. That seems to be the same phenomenon at play in Norton and Sommers’ recent article on perceptions of racism.

If only it were easier to demonstrate that societal benefits are not a zero-sum game, that in fact to help others really is to help oneself. It’s puzzling that people can be so keenly aware of how easily their advantages can slip away, yet not realize that constructing a society where everyone is protected is precisely how they can guard against this.


M. I. Norton, S. R. Sommers. Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011; 6 (3): 215 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406922

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