Just over a decade ago I was an undergraduate student at York University, taking a class on the “Sociology of Race and Racism.” We learnt terms like structural racism and oppression, but when I asked about the individual’s psychology and the belief that we can control our destiny, I was jeered by fellow students and named a “neocon” by my professor.
In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic killing by a Minneapolis police officer in late May, protesters’ calls for police reform have spread across North America and broadened to tearing down monuments, re-naming military bases, shunning newspaper editors who ran opinion pieces disputing the current woke consensus, shaming corporate America into releasing public statements, pushing for diversity hiring, requesting support for Black-owned businesses and even re-organizing Facebook groups for moms. These reveal a larger anguish over the place of black Americans and Canadians in society.
The United States has certainly been the scene of historical tragedies perpetrated upon its black citizens, including slavery, discriminatory housing policies and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But in following the protesters’ cancel culture, we’ve prioritized the deterministic sociological perspective – that our environment dictates our past, present and future – and that group identity triumphs over individual agency. We have disregarded the same questions around psychology about which I inquired a decade earlier, particularly in how we perceive racism, and how negative narratives can shape us.
As the son of immigrants, I’ve long contemplated this, reflecting on my parents’ anguish in their journey across countries, propelling my father to become an immigrant medical examiner. Caught between two worlds – one a middle-class ethnic community, the other a succession of elite, homogeneous schools in which I was one of the few visible minorities – I wrestled with ethnic identity for a decade, later studying and presenting on it at several conferences. But my own evolution began when I inquired – When do we escape our past?
Perception of Racism
“Consider the following situation,” begin Evelyn R. Carter, Ph.D and Mary C. Murphy, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University – Bloomington, in Social and Personality Psychology Compass. “A White person boards a bus where a Black person is sitting next to the only remaining empty seat. Instead of sitting, the White person opts to stand. The reason for this behavior is ambiguous. Perhaps the White person was having a bad day and did not feel like sitting near anyone; perhaps they were only riding for a few stops and preferred to stand, or perhaps they were uncomfortable sitting next to a Black person. When, and for whom, does this person’s behavior count as evidence of racism?”
While many black and white individuals alike agree that racism has been reduced over time, there is sharp disagreement on the prevalence and form remaining today, culminating in questions about perception. “53% of Blacks report that discrimination against minority groups is a critical issue in America today, yet only 17% of Whites agree,” Carter and Murphy wrote in their 2015 review of available academic literature on group differences in perceptions of racism.
Part of this disconnect, they believe, is that while whites look for “blatant racism” – such as, for example, explicit negative comments or refusals to provide a qualified black person with an available job – blacks look for “subtle racism”, in which whites evince a belief in equality yet continue to hold lingering feelings (at least in the perception of black people) rooted in negative stereotypes and history. As a result, blacks who are aware of these negative beliefs in turn lower their threshold to detect signs. This response is far more prevalent than with other ethnic groups, especially Asian-Americans, and it includes absorbing “secondhand stress” from a white person they are interacting with.
Ambiguous situations – like the bus seat example above – lead to many blacks being hyper-vigilant. This is something I’ve empathized with for years and expressed in a letter to the Globe & Mail in 2013: “When people ask me, as a second-generation immigrant, why ethnics often congregate together, I tell them to imagine themselves as a new student in high school on the first day, anxious and alert. Now magnify that by 10.”
But this alertness can also result in false alarms on racism, with Glen Adams, who previously taught at the University of Toronto, Laurie T. O’Brien at Tulane University, and Jessica C. Nelson at the University of Kansas, all professors of Psychology, stating in a jointly authored paper that “scientists have suggested that members of oppressed groups will be motivated to be vigilant for prejudice to the extent that the cost associated with a false alarm is less than the cost of a miss.” This obviously raises profound questions about benchmarks for discrimination in public policy and discrimination lawsuits, along with misunderstandings in individual interactions. “Taken together,” Professors Carter and Murphy write, “Detecting racism is largely in the eye of the beholder.”
I was recently speaking with a friend, a black woman born into South Africa apartheid and trained as a human rights lawyer. She thoughtfully remarked that African-Americans, unlike Africans, have been burdened by a “narrative of slavery.” “Social identity is ever rooted in history,” wrote the late Ira Berlin, a historian who specialized in slavery and freedom. He elaborated on this difference in the Smithsonian Magazine, noting that when meeting with black individuals from Haiti, Jamaica, Great Britain, and Ghana, “It was not their history…But for African-Americans, their history has always been especially important because they were long denied a past.”
In trying to understand a complex world, humans typically think in stories, and often blacks carry these narratives of pain and negative cultural stereotypes. “I am confronted by stories of Black despair and catastrophe,” says Dena Simmons, an Assistant Director at Yale University, in Psychology Today. “For a long time, all I knew were these single narratives of Black hopelessness because they were everywhere I looked.”
Julian Hasford, a professor at the School of Child and Youth Care at Ryerson University in Toronto, has written about the power of these stories, observing the “relationship between internalized oppression and dominant cultural narratives.” But if we acknowledge that there is a variety of individual perceptions and group definitions in racism, leading to insufficient action on public policy or in corporate guidelines, then years of suppressed pain and anguish will erupt when a violent act is performed across racial lines, such as the death of a black citizen from the actions of a white police officer.
But perhaps Professor Hasford has pointed the way forward – that resisting these narratives by formulating and offering counter‐narratives can be helpful for the well-being of affected individuals and, over time, relations between members of different races. Examples already abound in our culture. Box-office king Black Panther unveils history about African tribes, and Southside with You is a beautiful and tender portrayal of the Obamas’ courtship, expanding the perception of visible minority experience. This is something I too have advocated, while recognizing the short-term cyclical reaction of social media, which are usually without deep insights or sustainable changes.
This is not to disregard or discount actual racial disparities, common to American and Canadian black statistics, despite different histories. But it asks what stories and voices are going to be widely shared and form the dominant voice as a lingering issue becomes a bi-national crisis. “No one appointed Black Lives Matter (BLM) to act as spokesperson for the entire black community. Much of the public, however, has taken them as representative of an entire race,” wrote one CBC contributor, who noted the movement’s scorched-earth tactics, something Barack Obama himself acknowledged during his presidency. “Contrary to the image created by news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests,” noted a New York Times contributor, “43 percent of black voters are moderates. A quarter identify as conservatives. These are the black people in church on Sunday.”
Where are these stories in the media?
Rewriting Your Story
Benjamin Hardy grew up in a broken home, shattered by his parents’ divorce at 11, leading his father into a deep depression and then drug addiction. Benjamin found his own addiction – playing video games for 15 hours a day – while barely passing high school. He spent many years telling himself that his father failed him and was a bad person. And yet, over time, compassion replaced judgement. “I’ve since changed my life,” he writes in How to Rewrite Your Past Narrative. “I went to school, earned a Ph.D., started a successful company and created a healthy and happy marriage. My past doesn’t define nor limit me.”
Hardy, who lives in Orlando, Florida, has studied narrative identity theory for a decade. In this process, he writes, we “form our identity by integrating our life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of ourselves, which gives a sense of unity and purpose to our lives.” Though we cannot change the facts, we can change the narrative, including re-framing negative past experiences into positive ones, and measuring ourselves against the progress we have made, not against the ideals or outcomes.
The George Floyd protesters are perhaps not just protesting policing. Perhaps they’re also struggling with psychohistory, the psychological impact of historical events like slavery. Joscelyn Duffy, a British Columbia-based communications strategist, writes in Psychology Today that “unbearable pain can be transformed into points of deep relatability and valuable insight.” She cites Viktor Frankl, an Austria-born psychotherapist who, incredibly, survived four successive Nazi concentration and death camps in the Holocaust and went on to write nearly 40 books.
Duffy admires Frankl’s ability to speak “from an empowered perspective, speaking authentically about his own strength and struggles, while empowering others to look within to see their true potential.” She encourages others to adopt a similar habit of perspective-taking, which she believes lessens emotional intensity, and enables re-crafting a narrative with a sense of control and a feeling of redemption, allowing a person to have greater life satisfaction. She sums it up thus: “Is your backstory your springboard or your anchor?”
Around the time I was a university student, the creation of an Afrocentric school in Toronto stirred debate. Its mission was supporting an alternative education to solve, as OISE, University of Toronto – St. George Professor George Dei put it, the “High dropout rates, low motivation, teachers’ low expectations of some students, stereotyping of black, religious minority and working-class students, a lack of respect for authority and a lack of student commitment to community.”
My vociferous opposition based on dividing students by race softened over time when I saw myself in then-Toronto District School Board Director of Education Chris Spence. We attended the same two universities, held the same position as football players, advocated for compassion to address misunderstanding of minority boys in schools, and supported transformational change in the education system.
In addressing this performance gap in black students, I concluded, perhaps we need to broaden our understanding of the human experience with alternative solutions. Others were thinking along the same lines. “I believe [in]…teaching blacks about feeling good about themselves…about their background and their history. A Black-focus school will most likely have educators who can understand black children,” one letter-writer wrote at the time to The Globe and Mail.
I share this perspective, recollecting on how our history books largely covered just Canada, the U.S. and Europe, overlooking most of the world. They failed to cover East Africa, considered the very birthplace of humans as a species, and the region I am writing this essay from now. “People without knowledge of his or her culture, history or heritage,” one parent of a child in the Afrocentric school said, “Is like a tree without roots.” It made me remember how, when teaching Grade 7 history a decade ago, a black student innocently challenged me, asking “Whose history?”
A few years after graduating, I visited Savannah, Georgia, where I took in the towering southern live oaks and the cobblestone paths leading to quaint antebellum mansions, just miles from the Atlantic. Savannah seemed to be of two minds; it was footsteps away from where the Great Slave Auction of 1859 took place, the largest single sale of enslaved African-Americans. Yet it was also where Union General William T. Sherman completed his celebrated March to the Sea, a landmark campaign in the Civil War that all-but crushed the Confederacy and freed many slaves.
As I visited the First African Baptist Church, descended from the first black congregation formed in the country, I thought of another famous Southern writer, William Faulkner, who had visited Savannah and famously stated, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But the question is, what do we do with it?
Roland Mascarenhas is an independent human resources consultant from Toronto, with degrees from Harvard University, the University of Toronto and York University, who is currently based in Mumbai.