Category Archives: Culture and Diversity

When “The Black Sheep” Is White

By: Megan E. Birney

2011 marks 10 years since the mixed-race category was added to the U.K.’s annual censes.  To commemorate this event, BBC Two has been running a series of programmes documenting the mixed-race experience both in Britain and around the world.

One of familys profiled in the series are the Kellys.  While the Kellys are mixed race (the father, Errol, is black and the mother, Alyson, is white), what makes them truly extraordinary is that in 1993, Alyson gave birth to twin boys — one black and one white.

How is this possible?  According to population geneticist Dr. Jim Wilson, Errol’s Jamaican heritage holds the answer. In the days of slavery, white men raping black women were common practice and, as a result, most blacks from outside of Africa have a mix of African and European DNA.  In the case of the Kellys, Errol passed his African DNA to his son James (resulting in James’ black skin) but passed his European DNA to his son Daniel (resulting in Daniel’s white skin).

Not surprisingly, being twins with different skin colours was difficult for James and Daniel growing up.  What is surprising, however, is that it was Daniel – the white twin – that endured the bulk of the racist abuse from students at the all-white school the twins attended.  His mum explains that situation like this: “Those kids couldn’t stand the fact that, as they saw it, this white kid was actually black.  It was as though they wanted to punish him for daring to call himself white.”

According to research by Yzerbyt, Leyens, and Bellour (1995), we are quick to reject ingroup members that are not in line with what is required for group membership.  Because the identity of the group is put at stake by misidentifying an ingroup member, we tend to be especially careful when allowing new members in.  If misidentification does occur, there is a “Black Sheep Effect” in which the “bad” ingroup member is chastised more than a similarly “bad’” outgroup member.  In other words, if an ingroup member and an outgroup member both exhibit an undesirable behaviour, we are likely to be much harder on the ingroup member.

Akin to this theory, the white students at the twins’ school punished Daniel because they had identified him as white (and hence an ingroup member) when he was, in actuality, half black.  Such behaviour from these white students illustrates just how important race is in how we identify both others and ourselves.  While the U.K and the rest of the world have come quite far in how we perceive mixed race people, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

Yzerbyt, V., Leyens, J., Bellour, F. (1995). The ingroup overexclusion effect: Identity concerns in decisions about ingroup membership. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25 (1), 1-16.

Black and White Twins: The Guardian, Saturday September 24, 2011

Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

By Kevin R. Betts

Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “America’s most dangerous city” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline.

The generalized American fear of traveling to Mexico is not without reason. The country’s drug war alone has lasted four and a half years and left 35,000 dead. Yet, politicians and the media speak of this violence as if it were the only story to be told about the country. In reality, risks faced by Americans in Mexico are quite low. Newsweek’s Bryan Curtis crunches the numbers: “…if you look at the number of Americans killed in Mexico since the drug war began in 2006, and then isolate the number of innocents “caught in the crossfire,” it amounts to only 10 or 20 killings per year….This is in a country with hundreds of thousands of American expats and more than 17 million American tourists.” David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute, confirms: “It would be naïve to say there is zero risk…But it would be alarmist to say the risk is much higher than ‘very low.’

So why do so many Americans fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in places like Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that all parts of the city are equally dangerous.

Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “America’s most dangerous” and violence in one part of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.

Read more:

Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.

Come on in, the water’s fine (Newsweek)

America’s most dangerous cities (Forbes)

Inspire magazine: Senseless extremist propaganda or effective recruitment tool?

Inspire Magazine, Spring Edition

By Kevin R. Betts

As millions of Americans tune in to news coverage about the death of Osama Bin Laden this week, a much smaller but equally ambitious group of Westerners are carefully reading and perhaps adopting the views put forth by contributors to the Spring issue of Inspire magazine. Contributors to this controversial and provocative English online magazine hope to inspire Western youth to take violent action against fellow Westerners in defense of Islam. In the most recent issue, contributors celebrate killings of Western service men and women, provide guidance on how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle, and discuss how current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Before we write this magazine off as senseless extremist propaganda, let’s take a moment to seriously consider whether Inspire might actually be effective in at least partially meeting its intended goals.

Like other magazines, Inspire exerts both informational and normative influence over its readers. The information the magazine provides is of considerable value to its readers because it is unique and difficult to find through other means. Without explicit training, most Westerners wouldn’t know how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle. Likewise, few if any Western news contributors express the view that current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial to groups such as al Qaeda. Inspire provides English speaking readers with unique and valuable information that is not available to them through traditional venues. The normative influence that Inspire exerts over its readers is more subtle. The prevailing view among Westerners seems to be that violence enacted in defense of Islam is deplorable. Inspire suggests that this violence is not only legitimate, but desirable. Knowing that they have the support of others, readers that accept this divergent perspective may begin to engage in new behaviors that are consistent with it. These behaviors may range from mere support for extremist goals endorsed by the magazine to actual violence against Westerners. Inspire seems to effectively provide information that interested readers consider valuable, and presents this information in a light that makes it appear normative.

So Inspire may be at least partially effective in meeting its goals. English speaking Westerners—perhaps even some of your friends and neighbors—will read this magazine and make judgments about it. Some of these judgments will be in favor of the views expressed by contributors to the magazine. What do you think? Will Inspire inspire many Westerners to support and/or engage in violent defense of Islam? Or will its message fall on deaf ears along with other senseless extremist propaganda?

Read more:

Bin Laden is dead, Obama says (New York Times)

Chilling tips in al-qaeda magazine (Al Jazeera)

Smith, J.R., & Louis, W.R. (2009). Group norms and the attitude-behavior relationship. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 19-35.

View more posts by Kevin R. Betts

Religion as a weapon: Time to disarm

By, Adam K. Fetterman
After the burning of a Koran in Florida, violent protests erupted in Afghanistan, killing at least 12 people, and it continues. As humans, we look for causes for such violence. As P.Z. Myers indicates, there is no shade of gray when it comes to the taking of another human life. What is it that makes people feel that it is acceptable to take someone’s life? Even when resulting from self-defense, it is a rare occasion that murder is the appropriate response. Regardless, there is no self-defense required in response to burning a book. Therefore, we look elsewhere for the cause or justification. One thing that is getting difficult to ignore, particularly in the current example, is religion. Many people, myself included, have had a hard time blaming religion for violence, because we want to be tolerant and accepting. There must be underlying factors beyond religion that drive these behaviors, right? There almost certainly are, but this recent eruption of violence over a book indicates that religion is playing a larger role than we typically credit. It appears that religion is a weapon.

Violent ideological groups tend to foster a number of justification techniques to substantiate acts of violence (Angie et al., 2011). For example, they foster feelings of moral superiority and righteousness, which makes them feel justified (Mumferd et al., 2008). As Angie and colleagues (2011) cite, this moral superiority is compounded by feelings of victimization and injustice. There is a clear connection between these findings and what we see in response to the Koran burning. Further findings implicate religion in these acts, such as the increasing of aggression when violent acts are sanctioned by a god (Bushman et al., 2007).

It can be hard to blame a whole religion for the acts of a few. To do so may even seem xenophobic. However, it continues to grow difficult to give religion a free pass, as Jerry Coyne points out quite eloquently. We see that religion gives individuals the justification needed to act in a violent matter. Even if the religion is not the root cause, it appears to be a powerful weapon. If so, it is time to put down the weapons and work things out like rational humans.

“Afghans Protest for Fifth Straight Day Over Florida Koran Burning” – FoxNews.com

“Shades of Gray”- P.Z. Myers, Pharyngula.

“What Does it Take to Blame Religion?” – Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True.

Angie, A. D., et al. (2011). Studying Ideological Groups Online: Identification and Assessment of Risk Factors for Violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41, 627-657

Mumford, M. D. et al. (2008). Violence in Ideological and Non-Ideological Groups: A Quantitative Analysis of Qualitative Data. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 1521-1561

Bushman, B. J., et al.  (2007). When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science, 18, 204-207.

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.