Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

In Search of the "Real America"

Wondering if the "Real Americans" have a nicer passport than mine...
I don't eat fish. I attribute much of this to my upbringing in a Midwestern state and a father (who did most of the cooking in our house) who also wasn't a seafood fan. This, and the fact that my stubborn unwillingness to try new things is accompanied by the palate sophistication of an 8-year-old.

As a non-fish eater living in New England, I frequently run into surprised dining companions amused by my eating habit (or lack thereof). They tend to offer me suggestions for dishes that they're sure I'll like. Quite often, this recommendation comes in the form of, "try the salmon; it doesn't taste fishy at all." This amuses me to no end, as in my stubborn and juvenile mind it serves as validation that I've been right all along–even seafood connoisseurs admit that there's something unpleasant about the category "fish."

Now, of course, I know what they're really trying to say. They're telling me that this particular dish won't have the odor and taste that I unpleasantly associate with seafood. Apparently, fresh fish doesn't taste fishy. Words can be funny that way.

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I've been pondering the non-fishiness of fish this past week as we hit the homestretch in the presidential election. Specifically, I've been thinking about how just as some fish apparently doesn't taste like fish, some Americans apparently aren't really American. Or, at least, that's been part of the implied and explicit campaign rhetoric of the past several days:

• Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior McCain adviser, recently referred to Southern Virginia as the "real Virginia," as opposed to the Northern regions of the state, which are closer to Washington, DC and increasingly populated by Democratic voters. • Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, speaking in a TV interview in support of McCain's candidacy, stated that "I'm very concerned that [Obama] may have anti-American views." She went on to suggest that an exposé was needed to determine how many of her fellow Representatives share such anti-American sentiment. • Another Republican Representative, Robin Hayes of North Carolina, just reversed a previous denial and admitted that last weekend he told a crowd in his home state, "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." • McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, also apologized this week for her previous comments regarding her preference for campaigning in small towns and other locales that are "pro-American" and have "real Americans" as residents.

What do these politicians and operatives mean when they talk about "real Americans"? It's hard to say for sure. At the very least, in the minds of these individuals, the phrase seems to be more applicable to Republican voters than to Democratic voters. This isn't particularly surprising. To be fair, I'd imagine that a fair number of Democrats might feel that the phrase is more applicable to their fellow party members than to Republicans, even if their righteous indignation over the above comments precludes them from admitting this fact for the time being.

But what makes these Republicans' comments so concerning is that a less generous interpretation is that there's more than simple partisanship going on here. Rep. Hayes didn't just suggest that liberals are not real Americans, he also stated that those of liberal ideology hate their country and he implied that they are lazy, inept, and godless to boot. It's bad enough for Democratic voters in Virginia to find out that they aren't "real" citizens of their own Commonwealth, but it's another thing altogether to learn that they're apparently harboring treasonous sentiment as well.

Moreover, it doesn't take much of a leap to suggest that "real American" can have racial overtones. In fact, we know from empirical research that the category "American" is one that we tend to associate more easily and quickly with White individuals than with members of other racial groups, suggesting that the phrase "real American" can, in some contexts, serve as code for "White people like you."

In 2005 two psychologists–Thierry Devos (San Diego State University) and Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University)–published a paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with the succinct yet illustrative title of "American = White?" Across a series of six experiments, the researchers found that both African-Americans and Asian-Americans tend to be less firmly associated with the national category "American" than are Whites.

In one study they asked White participants to complete a computer-based categorization task in which they had to 1) classify faces as either White or Black, 2) classify objects as either American or foreign, and 3) conduct both of these classification tasks simultaneously. As just a few examples, the American objects included the U.S. Capitol, the American flag, a $1 bill, and a bald eagle. Some of the foreign objects were unfamiliar currency, flags, and maps from other countries.

The results were straightforward: participants found it easier to pair White faces with American objects and Black faces with foreign objects than to do it the other way around. Similar results emerged for Asian-American faces. As the researchers wrote, "The conclusion that can be drawn on the basis of the six studies presented here is unambiguous. To be American is to be White." That is, on an unconscious level, for most people–even those among us who truly strive to be egalitarian–"real American" conjures up strong associations of Whiteness.

Are Governor Palin and Reps. Bachmann and Hayes trying to stir up racial animus when they appeal to voters to support "real Americans" and those who are truly "pro-American"?  After all, they are running against a biracial man with a foreign-sounding name. Well, I'll leave the speculation on that count to the pundits, both of the professional and armchair varieties. But the research of Devos and Banaji does offer a clear conclusion, namely that such language has the potential to stir up racial associations, that the phrase "real Americans" can be, in some circumstances, code for "White Americans."

And this means that the Republicans' remarks of the past week definitely smell fishy, despite protestations to the contrary from your seafood-friendly dining companions.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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