Author Archives: Megan E Birney

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

Ostracism and School Shootings: What’s the Connection?

By: Megan Birney

In California today a teacher became yet another victim of gun violence in U.S. schools. According to initial reports, the teacher was shot by a student who he’d had an argument with earlier in the day. After years of reading about these horrific school shootings (Wikipedia lists over 45 of these incidents in the last 5 years), many of us are plagued by the following question: Why does this keep happening?

While there is little doubt that school shootings are the result of many complex factors, some research suggests that a combination of feeling ostracized and not in control could lead individuals to act overly aggressive. Reacting to years of ostracism has consistently been cited as a possible motive in the massacres at both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Yet Williams (2007) points out that many individuals who experience ostracism respond by increasing the attention they pay to others and consciously trying to please those around them. It seems, then, that ostracized individuals tend to deal with the pain of ostracism in one of two ways: some become more passive while others become more aggressive.

So what determines how an ostracized person reacts? Williams (2007) suggests that the aggression that sometimes follows ostracism may be the individual’s attempt to restore a sense of control over their environment. Because ostracized individuals often feel invisible, acting out in aggressive ways forces others to notice and acknowledge them.  Aggression in this case may be the only way the individual is able to reclaim a sense of control over their environment.

While we continue to come to grips with the tragedy of school shootings, it may be worth keeping these ideas in mind. If we want to stop these acts of violence, we may want to take a closer look at how ostracism impacts other areas of the ostracized person’s life.

Further Reading:

Vocational school teacher shot by student in Los Angeles

 

Williams, K.D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 236-237.