No Offense

What did she really mean?

Posted Jul 23, 2019

Behaviorists of all varieties agree on one thing—that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out,” all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes.

Even the dimmest pigeon will soon learn to peck only on the green light and avoid the red.

Now we give the bird a test. Occasionally, instead of red or green, the light is yellow. What will the pigeon do? Well, at first he will peck the yellow key, because yellow is close to green on the spectrum: green and yellow are similar. This is called stimulus generalization.

But in our test, pecking yellow doesn’t give food but another timeout. Since the pigeon can in fact tell the difference between green and yellow, even though they are similar, it takes but few repetitions for him to learn not to peck yellow. This is called discrimination.

Human beings also behave like this. Here is an example.

Many years ago, distinguished black scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin took offense. The incident occurred in Washington’s Cosmos Club:

In 1995, on the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Franklin hosted a celebratory dinner party for some of his friends at the Cosmos Club. Some of his guests had not arrived, and Franklin decided to head to the entrance of the Club to look for them. There, an elderly white woman handed Franklin her coat check and demanded that he fetch her coat. Franklin politely informed her that all the Club’s attendants were uniformed and if she handed one of them her coat check, they would be happy to assist her.

In a talk he gave 10 years later, Franklin recounted this event as an example of how racist stereotypes and ideologies about the social position of Blacks remained strongly entrenched in American society.

Was Dr. Franklin right to be offended? Should the white lady have known better?

Probably both parties were just behaving like our pigeon and generalizing based on past experience. In the WL’s experience, coat attendants in Washington were almost always black — the green key. Members of the Cosmos Club, on the contrary, were always white (the red key) — Franklin was the club’s first black member. Hence her mistake. She had no experience with the yellow key, a black person at the club who was not an employee.

Dr. Franklin had experienced many racist insults from white people in his life. Like the pigeon, he had much experience with the red key. Hence his inference that this new white person was delivering another insult.

Who should apologize? Not Franklin, who was perfectly civil at the time. The lady? Well, yes, she should have apologized, since she did make a mistake. But her error may have arisen from basic psychological processes having nothing to do with racism. Should Dr. Franklin perhaps have hesitated before taking offense?

This incident has become an influential example of racism in the American South. It is taken as a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, even though many stereotypes are true: men are usually stronger than women and have deeper voices, for example. People form stereotypes automatically even though they can sometimes get you in trouble. Horse nettle fruit looks like tomatoes, but they are poisonous. A hungry child familiar with tomatoes might well eat the look-alike nettle fruit and get sick. People, like pigeons, generalize based on their past experience and past experience may not be truly representative: not all Cosmos Club members are white.

How should the incident be regarded now? Dr. Franklin’s original reaction is totally understandable. But he also could have reflected on possibly non-racist causes of the WL’s behavior.

The message, for people of any race: Try to look at the situation from the other person's point of view before you take offense—or give it.