Friday, February 4, 2011

Is Race a Role?

According to social psychologists, when an individual adopts a “role,” he or she is psychologically motivated to uphold the assumed characteristics of that particular role. Thus, racially imbued “role-playing” has the potential to yield detrimental consequences, perpetuating racist behavior and attitude. In the passage below, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, describes his owner’s change in temperament as she began to fulfill her role as master:

“That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of demon” (Douglass, 1845, p. 57-58).

As described above, the woman began to demonstrate characteristics of a stereotypical “master,” despite her otherwise kind, warm, and loving demeanor. What motivated both this woman and others to behave in such a way, especially when the behavior directly contradicted her internal personality? Is the woman or society to blame?

Perhaps Alain Locke’s notion that culture determines race sheds light on Frederick Douglass’s curious recollection. Throughout the essay “The Concept of Race as Applied to Social Culture,” Alain Locke argues that race is socially based rather than scientifically based. Specifically, Locke argues, “man is one, and civilization is many.” Therefore, physical and mental differences between people do not suggest that they are inherently different beings. Rather, differences emerge when people belong to different “civilizations;” each civilization is rooted with various traditions and values, which will manifest itself in social interaction.

Social psychologists’ theory on role-paying leads me to believe that there are cultural “roles” that people are expected to uphold in order to be a member of a cultural community. Can “race” be considered a “role?” In such a case, were people culturally motivated to engage in “racist” behavior during the 18th and 19th centuries? For example, was Frederick Douglass’ master merely upholding the role of her cultural identity? If people are self-motivated to belong to a group or community, perhaps the external pressure to fulfill a culturally appropriate role undermines internal thoughts and emotions. Therefore, do you think that the role of “master” and “slave” were culturally determined and thus self-perpetuating?

Or, do you think roles are temporary reflections? For example, did the woman begin to believe in and agree with her role as “master,” or was she aware that is was a fleeting portrayal that lacked legitimacy. Perhaps, the theory of role-playing is too superficial to be culturally substantiated. However, after reading Frederick Douglass’ passage, I am inclined to argue the former.

Works Cited

Meyers, D. G. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill


  1. Hey Ellie,

    I think the concept of race as a 'role' is a really interesting and important way to think about some of the problems we've been getting to in class. We've nailed down the race-as-social-construction thing, but as important is the way that race-as-performance. Looking a pop culture terms like 'wigger', 'inside out oreo' etc., it is clear that individuals can perform - through dress/speecb/behavior- a race which is not their own. Even on a more general scale, there are certain ways in which we all perform the race or races which we identify with. Keeping in mind, as Locke argues that race and culture are not intrinsically related, what it means to act white, black, latino, asian, lapp(ian) is of course up highly contestable. A really interesting example of transgressive racial performance are early rock n' roll stars like our dearly beloved Elvis. Part of what made Elvis so scandalous and famous is that his music and his style consciously drew on African-American music and culture. Although Presley was a white male, as a musical performance artist he transgressed racial lines, which were assumedly 'fixed' through legalized racial segregation.

  2. Ellie,
    I'm very intrigued by the connection you made between society and race here, arguing along the line of "role-playing" as influential enough to cement changes in members of a society that result in behaviors, beliefs, and actions as tremendous as the dynamic between slave and master.
    I am really interested in how this might play into current views of racism as something of the 'past' and as whites today as not being responsible for slavery. I think that there is often a desire by people to argue that they are intrinsically good, that people are born with a sort of moral compass pointing toward good or evil. I believe that this idea is one of the things that allows white Americans to distance themselves from the actions of their ancestry who enslaved Africans. It is easy to convince yourself that you're not responsible for the past actions of your 'group' (in this case white Americans) if the members of your group were fundamentally, morally, different from yourself. Ascribing slave owners as evil and inhuman sets oneself in stark contrast to oneself, if you believe that you would never even be capable of such atrocities. In a way, you can justify that you are already reconciling past grievances by simply being more morally good.
    But, social psychology builds a strong case that this moral compass is not intrinsic, and that any person can fall into the same roles as those who commit horrid acts. Dr. Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment of 1971 demonstrated that students put into certain roles will take on the behaviors that they perceive are expected of them. More shockingly, Dr. Zimbardo, as the acting Warden, began to fall into the same shocking behaviors until an uninvolved graduate student of his came to observe the experiment and, shocked, requested it be stopped. We see parallels even today - Abu Ghraib is perhaps the most stark example of good people becoming 'evil'. The behavior of children soldiers under the Third Reich and modern day conflicts in Africa and elsewhere can also be attributed in part to the fulfilling of perceived roles with shocking behaviors.
    So, Ellie, as you demonstrated with the excerpt from Douglas' Autobiography, I think that the actions of slave masters was something influenced by the fulfilling of 'roles'. And I think we see this today in our society. In a way, it's a cyclic dynamic building off of stereotypes and cultural expectations. The idea of differences between people of different skin colors, the idea of race, and the idea that certain 'races' should act certain ways becomes the roles for that race, and since it's usually based on skin color, people have no choice but to be thrust into a group with an expectation, and expectation which they fulfill and thus reinforce.


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