How Parents Inadvertently Foster Racism

Excessive praise and unrelenting criticism drive a need to feel superior.

Posted Oct 04, 2016

We don’t have to choose between color blindness and using color as a guide to how we behave toward strangers. If you want to understand or relate to a person, you should notice what there is to notice about him or her. But problems occur when color is used as a guide to how we should behave with strangers. Much more relevant, almost always, is whether the person appears stable, peaceful, or hygienic. Particularly important is the expression in the eyes. It shouldn’t be that hard to teach children the irrelevance of color in determining how to act with respect to a stranger compared to how threatening, friendly, or indifferent a stranger looks. The fact that this hasn’t happened is pretty compelling evidence that racial distinctions about strangers are serving some other purpose.

That purpose seems to me to be the fantasy of superiority. My evidence for this assertion is the way Jews, Italians, and the Irish stopped being people of color and started being white once enough black people left the ghetto and were available to feel superior to. In response, Jews, Italians, and the Irish stopped noticing warning signs that strangers might be Christians, Protestants, or English—in big-city America: they still do in other parts of the world, such as rural America, Switzerland, and the U.K., respectively.

There are obvious political and economic advantages to claiming superiority over a group of people. Disenfranchisement of the marginalized benefits the majority. Blaming the dispossessed for their poverty means the well-off don’t have to pay for a solution since, as Darwin said, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature but by our institutions, great is our sin.” But it’s not just the rich and powerful who benefit from racism. It’s also those who compete economically or politically with the despised class of people.

As a psychologist, I am particularly interested in the psychology of feeling superior. Racism provides a comforting explanation for why one’s own life is not all one had hoped it would be. It also provides a compensatory comparison, where one can feel superior for not having a trait that one imputes to the despised group.  Thus, I am all for color-awareness for a long list of purposes, but I am against it for deciding how to treat strangers. As long as we use tribalism as a source of superior feelings, which compensate us for the ordinariness and brevity of our lives, we will need to make tribal distinctions, and those that are visible are likely to remain the most useful for that perverted purpose. The question for me is whether, apart from directly imparting racist attitudes to children, parents are inadvertently cultivating a twisted superiority that hitches a ride on racial categories.

Feeling superior can be bred in children by mistreating them, which stimulates a compensatory desire for greatness. Or it can be bred by telling them how wonderful they are, by spoiling them, which creates a dreaded sense of being ordinary that must constantly be fended off. Under narcissism is always a depressive sense of being not all one’s cracked up to be, and under that depression is narcissism, a sense that one’s personal Greek tragedy is the central narrative in all situations. The opposite of the quest for perfection is not depressive surrender, it’s self-esteem; but real self-esteem is not just repeating to yourself the praise you heard from others; real self-esteem, as Skinner said, is the feeling you have when you possess skills. If children could be taught to enjoy feeling superior to others or to accept feeling inferior to others around real accomplishments, such as schoolwork, athletics, relationship management, games, and wit, they might not need the fantasy of racial superiority.

I’m imagining a hostile reaction to the suggestion that, rather than praise children indiscriminately, parents ought to make them feel special mainly or only for their effects on family members (“you light up my life”) and provide a realistic appraisal, or no appraisal at all, on traits such as beauty, skill, and intelligence. Indeed, it’s hard to see why a parent ever needs to tell a child she’s smart or capable instead of pointing out the successes that smart and capable behavior brings to her. She can find out just how smart she is at school. I imagine accusations of holding children back by not encouraging their dreams or making them feel bad about themselves, even though a realistic appraisal—or an absence of appraisal—makes people feel bad only if they’ve gotten their hopes up that they are something that they’re not. I wondered if tying the practice to racism might help tone down the excessive praise that fosters a drive to feel superior. Excessive criticism and neglect, as noted, also foster a need to feel superior, but they’re driven by hatred of the child and are therefore harder to change than excessive praise, which is typically driven by love.

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