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