Understanding can prevent prejudice

William Raspberry

The Washington Post

Anyone who has worked with a large organization has seen the types. One woman will play her gender stereotype to perfection: deferring to male co-workers, taking little offense in their offhanded sexism, and trying hard to “fit in” in a situation that routinely undervalues her potential.

Another will be forever reacting to unintended slights, quick to point out the sexism she sees at every hand, refusing to “let them get away with it.” And a third, while clearly aware of the sexism around her, will find a way to have her contributions taken seriously as she climbs the company ladder.

The same patterns manifest themselves among racial and ethnic minorities. Some will play their assigned ethnic roles, others are forever on some civil-rights crusade or another and still others seem able to surmount the endemic racism.

One group of researchers–William Cross, Rita Hardiman, Gerald Jackson and Rita Jackson–has concluded that our reactions are determined by where we happen to be in our development of social-group identity. (I have not seen their work, only a brief summary in a year-old issue of the Training and Development Journal, from shich the quotations in this piece are taken.)

These researchers list five stages of development:

–Naive/No Social Consciousness. This stage, occupied solely by small children, is characterized by a near-total absence of consciousness as to racial, ethnic or gender-group membership.

–Acceptance. In this stage, individuals accept the socially assigned roles of their group, including the positive and negative stereotypes.

–Resistance. This stage, largely a reaction against the second stage, is characterized by a heightened sensitibity to racism and sexism, whether in one’s own attitudes and behaviors, on the job, or in the general environment.

“Because they frequently challenge racist and sexist attitues and practices in the workplace, racial minorities and women at this stage of development are often termed ‘hostile,’ ‘militant’ or ‘oversensitive’ to issues of oppression. Similarly, white males also go thorough a stage of resistance where they begin to be aware of and sensitive to racism and sexism which, in the extreme, can lead to a ‘save the world’ complex.”

–Redefinition. In this fourth stage, members of various social groups redefine themselves in ways that transcend the negative stereotypes they formerly either embraced or overreacted against.

–Building Bridges. Those who reach this stage of social-group identity look for ways to build bridges between themselves and the people and organizations around them.

But I suspect that most of us vacillate among several stages, perhaps imagining ourselves to be bridge-builders (Are we really only Stage Two?) while not wishing to accommodate obvious racism or sexism (Does that place us in Stage Three?).

Is the five-stage progression supported by research? Is it possible to skip stages? Would understanding the various stages help to accelerate one’s movement through them? These are among the queston I’d like to put to the researchers, if I can ever find them.

But even on the basis of the summary I’ve seen, it seems clear that getting as many of us as possible to move toward the fourth and fifth stages is a worthwhile undertaking, both in the interest of real workplace diversity and in the interest of ridding America of its still-too-prevalent racist and sexist attitudes.