Everywhere… 2017 Miss America, a black woman, is surprised she says “…by the racism I have encountered.”
Everywhere… sports, NBA star Lebron James’ home is spray painted with a racial slur.
Everywhere…city, county government administrators; Flint Michigan county commissioner blames the city water crisis on “n****** who don’t pay their bills.”
Everywhere…nooses, swastikas, KKK rallies… around the nation, not just in the Deep South.
What is the stimulus for all these forms of intergroup tension? Simply put, it’s rapid social change; in the conceptual language I have developed, it’s all about neo-diversity.
In 2006, at Oxford University England, I was one of the scholars participating in the Oxford Round Table on “Global Security in the 21st Century.” It was in my paper presentation for that set of discussions that I introduced the concept of neo-diversity. I used my new concept of neo-diversity to begin to analyze the way rapid social change was causing more and more people from many different groups to be in contact and non-voluntary interaction with each other. I argued that the social psychology of that neo-diversity was activating old (and creating some new) intergroup tensions and interaction-anxieties in everyday life; intergroup tensions and interaction-anxieties that could become volatile.
That presentation became my, and the first paper published on neo-diversity. In 2009, in my second paper about the concept, I used the neo-diversity idea to debunk the claim that because we elected Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency that we were a post-racial nation.
But it was back in 2006 that I also created and began to teach my college course, “Interpersonal Relationships and Race.” In that course, I teach the social psychology of neo-diversity to help young people understand and productively adapt to the multi-group context of their lives. In 2006, I first taught the course as a special topics course with an enrollment of 20 students. In 2012 my course was made a part of the standing curriculum of the Department of Psychology with the title “Interdependence and Race.”
Students had been more and more drawn to my course, so much so that I had gone from teaching it once an academic year to teaching it every semester, with an average enrollment of sixty students. Why so much demand? Turns out my course fits the time we live in and the interpersonal situations young people are thrust into unprepared. But with no sugar coating, my course describes and analyzes for students the modern day struggles we have with intergroup tension caused by our nation’s neo-diversity.
In America we are no longer talking about “the Negro problem,” no longer just “race-relations,” no longer just “desegregation and integration.” We have struggled with and wobbled part way through those intergroup phases into today’s neo-diversity; that interpersonal situation in which we all have to encounter and sometimes interact with people from different groups by way of race yes, but also sexual orientation, religion, bodily-condition, sex-of-person, mental-health condition, gender-identity, age and on and on.
To be clear then, President Trump is not the cause of all the current intergroup tensions in America. People’s willingness to embrace or overlook Presidential candidate Trump’s anti-group rhetoric is just part of the evidence of the hibernating-bigotry that we have been ignoring by tolerating other people’s and our own language-bigotry. We have wobbled through the other intergroup phases dragging with us and trying to ignore hibernating bigotry: prejudiced feelings that only show up in outward behavior when the right stimulus shakes it awake. We have been too quick to give camouflaged hibernating-bigotry a pass as “…just a joke.” Now we are seeing the consequences of that wobbly effort, everywhere…
With all that is going on, how are my former students doing? Has going through my course on neo-diversity helped at all and if so how?
June, 2017, I got this email:
“Hello Dr. Nacoste, I hope your summer is treating you well. Today, a truly disturbing event occurred at my sister’s high school that I wanted to share with you for your PSY 411 course.
This morning, a banner was displayed on Wakefield High School’s building saying “Bring Tripp Back #smartlunch”. This refers to the previous principal Tripp Crayton who during his time as principal allowed the school to have smart lunch, an hour long lunch for students. However, the new principal has taken away smart lunch with the hopes of promoting students to stay on campus during lunch and take advantage of teacher help. Now, this was not the issue.
Alongside the banner, the same students hung a black doll by the neck with rope as if it were lynched. These students threatened the current principal who is black. I am completely horrified and disgusted that something like this has happened. Supposedly, students had done this as their senior prank; however, this was definitely not a prank. It was an act of hatred.
Dr. Nacoste, your work is incredibly important and exactly what every individual in our nation needs. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate the lifelong lessons you have taught your course. In these moments of hatred, your lessons and the work you are doing is the light that shines through.”
This story did, in fact, make Raleigh's News & Observer and the local TV news. But I was curious about one thing, so I followed-up with this student. I asked my question this way. I said: “I appreciate your words about my teaching. Even so, I have a question. If you can answer this, tell me... in the face of seeing this kind of event, how does my teaching help you? I'd just like your thoughts, if you don't mind.”
Being summer, it took a little while but a week or so later, my former student replied. She said:
“For me, your course truly opened my eyes. I was aware of hate acts occurring across the nation- I would witness them myself, experience the hate, or see it on the news. But I viewed this all with such a tunnel vision. I saw these hate acts as isolated events and foolishly taught that only racists or extremists committed these acts. And as a result, though these events would upset me, I did not take them as seriously and view them as being detrimental to our society. Your class changed me to having more of a funnel view. Becoming aware of why bigotry still exists really altered my perspective. Besides helping me in my own life, understanding hibernating bigotry in a neo-diverse America has reinforced why events like these should be taken very seriously. They are not random. They do not affect a small percent of us. And like you have taught me, we are all guilty.”
Going on, my student commented on how going through my course see how the lack of such education was influencing her friends. She wrote:
"It was interesting for me to see my friends’ reactions to the hate crime at Wakefield High School. They were stunned like me; but, only because they did not think that things like this happen anymore. In fact, they did not see it as being an issue. Instead, they blamed the event on kids being immature or it being ‘a bad joke’.”
From there, my student finished her reflection saying: :
“Hearing their thoughts, I could not help but be appalled, because this was NOT immaturity over a change of school policy or disagreement with a principal- this was a hate crime against a whole community. In fact, using your course material I was able to explain to my friends why I could not see things the way they did as well as why I felt that they should take it more seriously. Because, to me, when you have the “…it’s just a joke” mentality, nothing will change and hate crimes will only multiply.”
So, my teaching about neo-diversity gives my students a framework through which to process and understand what is going on. Teaching about neo-diversity also gives young people strategies for managing their social interactions and managing their own behavior in intergroup situations. That is also why I continue to not only teach, but also to write for national audiences.
And, indeed, my book “Taking on Diversity” has already been used in courses as a tool for socializing students away from neo-diversity anxiety to appropriate respect for other student citizens. May 2017, Dr. Mark Shelly of Yavapai College wrote to let me know he had used my book in his “Race and Ethnic Relations” course. He sent along student reactions.
One of his students, a self-identified white-female in her late 20s wrote:
“I am now aware that hibernating bigotry simply waits with great patience, and strikes when awakened by an appropriate stimulus. I observed this type of bigotry in my father this week as he was telling me about his hometown in California, which had a serious landslide shut down a major highway. After I stated that it will take several days to clear the roads, his immediate response was, ‘Yeah, because all of California’s money is going to those freakin’ sanctuary cities.’ This bigoted statement was a result of the prejudice against Mexicans he bears, which usually hides, just waiting to escape. It was clearly not shared by my Mother, who gave him quite a dirty look after his comment. My newly attained awareness regarding hibernating bigotry highlights the complex nature of prejudice.”
You see, we have been setting young people up by saying “it’s just a joke.” With that false idea as their guide, too many young people are fooled into thinking that “If it’s just a joke then everyone will understand that we were just joking when we posted those memes about women and black people.”
Apparently that’s what those young people admitted to Harvard University thought. For them, it was just joking around to use racial and gender slurs in an on-line “private” chat group attached to the Harvard University admissions on-line network. Sure, it was just a joke until… Harvard learned what was going on and took back the admissions of ten of those students.
Teaching young people the truth of neo-diversity, matters in consequential ways. None of my students think “…it’s all just a big joke.”
Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D. is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University and the author of “Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect.” (2015; Prometheus Books).
Nacoste, R.W. (2006). What Rough Beast: Intergroup Tensions in the Age of Neo-Diversity. Forum on Public Policy, 2 (#3), 556-569.
Nacoste, R. W. (2009). Post-Racial?: Something Even More Bizarre and Inexplicable. Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity, 11, 1-10.
Hui, T. Keung (May 30). Teddy bear hung from noose at Wake Count high school building. News & Observer (2017): http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article153354789.html
Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
Schmidt, S. (June 5). Harvard withdraws 10 acceptances for ‘offensive’ memes in private group chat. Washington Post (2017): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/06/05/harvard-withdraws-10-acceptances-for-offensive-memes-in-private-chat/?utm_term=.95eb7d354341.