A Hope Professor’s Tough Talk on Race

Thursday evening, an interesting collection of people gathered in the Holland Museum. The building, a stately establishment, though largely overlooked by most who live in the city, is the setting where retired couples, college students and concerned community members chattered excitedly as they impatiently awaited the coming presentation. The atmosphere was similar to that of a theater, where the audience anticipates a remarkable evening, yet when the night’s keynote speaker arrived at the podium, a sobering hush fell over the crowd.

Dr. Chuck Green, a professor of psychology at Hope College, has devoted much of his career to the study of race in America. Through his work, he tries to help people find ways to work for racial justice through their own spheres of influence.While he has had many different roles, Dr. Green currently teaches full-time in the psychology department. Some of his classes include “Social Psychology and Race in America,” “Race in Health and Healthcare” and “Race in Faith and Christian Life.” Needless to say, Dr. Green is well-qualified to educate others in the field and has a well-informed perspective on race in America. “Why do we hate THEM?” is Dr. Green’s lecture to supplement the traveling exhibit “THEM: Images of Separation,” which currently displayed in the Holland Museum on loan from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, until February 22.

Dr. Green began by asking the questions: “What do we get when we dehumanize other people? What’s the benefit to us? What’s the motivation? What’s the rationale behind it?” The room was quiet as silence settled in between his words. The bobs of heads nodding in understanding could be seen across the room. Dr. Green presented two photos on a projector, one of a woman, Lowa Beebe, and the other of a man, Chip Colwell, both are Native American. He said, “I never thought much about whose land I lived on until a group of Native American held a series of Holland Powwows about a decade ago.” Dr. Green proceeded to acknowledge that the very soil underneath the museum in which we all sat, was stolen from Native American tribes. Again, more heads nodded in recognition of the truth that is so often forgotten. With his acknowledgements made, Dr. Green was ready to begin the evening’s discussion.

Dr. Green first addressed the question: What makes social groups so important to us? Humans naturally group themselves with others—it is instinctual. “Our social identity is very important to our personal identity; being affiliated with social groups even promotes physical health,” he said. However, while social grouping can be a good thing, it is also a key basis for division and discrimination. In order to explain his point, Dr. Green used the example of Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory.

Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel was one of the millions displaced during the Second World War. As a Jewish man, he was subjected to the horror of concentration camps, and, despite having survived and being liberated, upon his return to Poland, he found that his entire family had been killed. The desire to understand what caused groups to hate others so much motivated him to design an experiment that Dr. Green described as a way to determine “which variables are most responsible for the development of prejudice and hate.” In his study, he created two groups with “no history, no competition, no clash of values, nothing that could lead them to discriminate against each other. Participants never met anybody in their group, all they knew was that two groups existed.” The results were alarming. Tajfel’s subjects showed in-group favoritism and out-group prejudice despite there being no real difference between the two. He tried continuously to create groups where there was no favoritism or prejudice, but he never succeeded. Dr. Green used this experiment to demonstrate how perceived differences between groups can be exaggerated and turned into a basis for prejudice.

Dr. Green mentioned another study in which researchers in Israel and Ethiopia studied babies from both countries and found that the babies preferred those of their own culture and appearance, displayed by the greater length of time they spent looking at photographs of people from their own culture. However, black Ethiopean babies who lived in Israeli immigration centers and consequently saw both Ethiopeans and Israelis spent the same amount of time looking at black Ethiopians as they did white Israelis, thus indicating no preference. The opposite occurred for white Israeli babies. The babies used in the study were three months old, therefore they had no concept of race, but Dr. Green explains that preference was “determined by the faces they had seen in their few weeks of life… it was the babies’ experience, not the babies’ race, that led them to have these preferences.” This example demonstrated that the solution is to directly attack the heart of the issue. We prefer what is familiar rather than unfamiliar or “different.” In order to combat that, we need to get comfortable with “different,” or rather, stop perceiving it as “different” altogether.

In the words of author Ta-Nahisi Coates, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” Dr. Green elaborated by saying, “Race did not lead to racism. Racism led to the concept of race.” It is the denial of everything that is the same between us and the concentration on what is “different” that leads to prejudicial racial distinctions. “Racism and race are the consequences of a long series of decisions beginning half a millennium ago to invent race,” Dr. Green said with conviction. “Race is only important because we decided it was important. It was a historical decision, yes, but one that we affirm and reaffirm everyday.”

Despite what we may choose to believe of American society, these everyday affirmations of race are omnipresent even today. Sociologists Michael W. Emerson and Christian Smith describe American society as racialized. The term “racialized” or “racialization” refers to the concept that “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities and social relationships.” Dr. Green listed countless examples in all areas of life. He stated, “I’m well aware of the fact that my wife and I have lived a middle class life largely because our forebears were white. They worked very hard, but millions of others worked just as hard as they did without the opportunity to turn that work into financial stability.” These millions of others include black and Latino families in America, who make “only about 60% of the income of white families in America.” In areas of health, the “maternal mortality rate among black women with a degree is higher than that of a white woman without a high school diploma.” In social aspects of life, when a family is looking for a place to live, they look for a “nice neighborhood” with “good schools” and “a church where I feel comfortable.” What do all of these criteria mean? They eliminate the other. They eliminate people different from us, and that is the problem. We are so comfortable with the similar, with the like-minded and with those from the same background as us that we keep perpetuating the separation and make our division even greater.

“One of the keys to eliminating racism is to understand where it comes from,” Dr. Green said. “The energy underneath the hate is the need to believe we are good by believing that others are bad.” That is no way to for humans to live. Value is intrinsic. Every human has it⁠—equally. Dr. Green said of the lecture, “This is the kind of anti-racist work that makes us better people and makes our community a better place to live in.” Do more than just be kind to one another. See the problem and create a solution.

 



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