Anxiety

A Lesson About “Love It or Leave It” Neo-Diversity Bigotry

Teaching the truth of America's racial history can cause intergroup anxiety.

Posted Jul 23, 2019

An old anxiety just woke up in America. Startled out of its slumber, it yelled, “America…love it or leave it.” What shook it awake? Neo-diversity; America’s new interpersonal situation where we all have to encounter and sometimes interact with people who do not look like, sound like, worship like, love like “us” (1).

Neo-diversity anxiety is what made attractive that powerful voice declaring, “I think they hate America. If they don’t like it, they should go back where they came from.” Unfocused, free-floating intergroup anxiety (2) is why that voice rings true to those who are already struggling with the neo-diversity anxiety question: "Who are among the ‘we’ and who are among the ‘they'?" (3).

This “who is an American” identity anxiety is complex, and it's not just political. Resistance to hearing the truth about America’s violent history of race is also part of social psychology. “You can’t preach that,” ministers say when it comes to what truths they can challenge their congregations to learn about and process the meaning for their everyday walk through life. As a professor, as a scholar, I don’t have that problem.

In my “Interdependence and Race” course (4), I can talk about my own experiences as a black person growing up in the Jim-Crow South of legal racial segregation. Yet, although I mention how I was situated in that racial history, I do not rely on my personal narrative to lay out the truth. I use scholarly resources. 

For race in the American military, I use Naval historian John Darell Sherwood’s “Black Sailor, White Navy” (5). That is a history of the 350 major racial incidents in the Navy from 1970-1975. I like using that book because Dr. Sherwood uses Department of Defense documents to detail and analyze every incident. I also like it because the book covers the race riot I lived through on the USS Intrepid (CV 11) during the time I served aboard that aircraft carrier (see Chapter 10). 

For a broad, detailed history of the racial laws of discrimination, institutionally supported violence against black people and eventual change in America, I use Duke University historian Dr. Tim Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name" (6). I like that scholarly resource because not only is it a documented history (including FBI files), Dr. Tyson interviews black and white people of North Carolina who describe their personal experiences during the time of Jim Crow.

Hard to believe then that someone not at my university, someone who is not a scholar, was so filled with anxiety about my teaching they tried to convince my students that I exaggerated the truth of the racial history of America. For my “Interdependence and Race” course, in 2010 I wrote a book specifically for the course: “What Rough Beast: Interpersonal Relationships and Race.” In my book, I review most of the major social psychology theories and experiments on intergroup tension to give my students a scholarly understanding of modern intergroup relations (7). I require that 300-page book for the course, and have students buy it as a course packet from which I make no money.

For the past 10 years, I have had it printed and bound by a close-by, off-campus vendor who sells the book as a course packet (at a low cost of about $28.00). In the spring of 2019, we had a problem. One of my students, a white female, came to my office quite, visibly, upset after buying the course packet. Turns out, as she was attempting to buy the course book, at the counter the white male waiting on her made some negative comments about me as a black man. That was only the beginning.

 I had her write up the incident. She wrote:

"A bit to my concern [this man] followed me out of the store. As we walked out of the store he continued to explain to me that he is a recent graduate of NC State. I asked him if he had ever taken a psychology class with Dr. Nacoste. He replied that he never had, but 'had a professor a lot like him.'

"I believe that I had a confused look on my face because I did not understand what he meant by 'a professor a lot like him.' To offer me more explanation, he continued by saying, 'I believe that blacks that have lived through the 60s and 70s fabricate their stories to make a point.'

"I was so taken aback by this statement that I had no idea what to say. The only thing I knew to say was to stand up for Dr. Nacoste's honor. I said, 'Dr. Nacoste is a very well respected professor at NC State and I do not think he would lie about anything.' This was a sad rebuttal for such an accusation but it was all I could think of in the moment. The man mumbled a response that I don’t remember.

"At this point, I was very uncomfortable and wanted to remove myself from the situation. I politely said goodbye and wished him a good day. I walked to my car and sat there for a moment in shock of this interaction. All I could think was 'What in the world just happened?'"

I had to work her through her emotions. Then after my meeting with this student, that afternoon, at our next class meeting, I asked for any student who felt they had an awkward/disturbing interaction while buying the course packet to see me. Six white female students stayed after to report a similar interaction.

Right then, other students asked me if they should still go to that vendor, and at first, I said, “Yeah, just buy the book.” That night, I changed my mind, thinking about the hijab-wearing Muslim women who would have to go to that vendor. That same evening, I emailed my class and told those who had not yet bought the book to “stay away from [that vendor].” I asked students to email me if they still needed a copy of the book so I could get a count and buy the books myself. They did and I did as promised. That is how I handled that neo-diversity anxiety-driven problem.

Not just at political rallies is free-floating neo-diversity anxiety having the effect of people wanting to deny America’s intergroup problems of mistreatment of people of color. Reveal the truth and, those who can’t handle the truth lash out in anxiety-driven panic:

“America, love it or leave it.” “Race-relations were never that bad, he’s exaggerating.”

These are classic examples of hibernating bigotry; negative feelings about a whole group of people that sleeps until the right stimulus comes along to wake it up (8). Anxiety about having to face the truth of the treatment of a group of people because that truth tarnishes the shiny “America the beautiful” identity shakes that bigotry awake.

Back in 2013, my students said I “had to” do a TED talk about neo-diversity. Pushed by my pushy students, I did a nineteen-minute TEDxNCSU talk with the title, “Speaking Up For Neo-diverse America” (9). My TEDxNCSU talk came to mind because of the 2019 version of statements saying to other Americans “… if they don’t like it here, go back where you came from…”

I started my talk by singing “America the beautiful.” That was my way of getting the listeners to begin to pay attention to what I had to say about “….love it or leave it” bigotry. Singing done, I pointed out how it was that too many Americans have bought the sales pitch of “America the beautiful” and so do not want to hear about the injustices we have done and do.

After viewing my TEDxNCSU talk, one student decided to take my “Interdependence and Race” course. For one of his reflections on Dr. Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name,” this white-male wrote:

“It’s hard to believe that this racial murder and all the other racial stuff was taking place just 40 years ago. About this time in our history, we are taught about everything BUT the intense racial war.

They show people images of Blacks like Bill Russell to desensitize us about the hardships Blacks faced during that time. It really blows my mind that while Henry Marrow was beaten to death and his killers acquitted in Oxford, we have Bill Russell over here winning championships in Boston. How does that work out? It hurts me to admit it, but I believe that our country’s attempts to change history will ultimately work. So many people are not taught this stuff that the 'sales pitch' is what will endure over time."

I do not agree that the sales pitch will be the American legacy. Yet I do admit that many have let the sales pitch influence them to buy an unrealistic, shiny image of America. Still, America is not a lemon. Today, in these times, I do not regret and am proud to have served my country in the U.S. Navy. Even then, though, I would have pointed out that the sales pitch has not been factual about America’s racial road history. No wonder that when someone points out our past real and our ongoing dirty, clogged and smoky American engine problems of intergroup injustice, those who have bought the sales pitch say “America… love it or leave it.” That is the social psychology of “…love it or leave it” sentiment.

Tried during the civil rights movement, yelled at black and white people who protested racial injustices, it didn’t work then. It won’t work now. Why? Because that anxiety has no ground to stand on. As the saying goes, "...the truth will out."  Also as Dr. King always told us, “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Here ended the lesson.

References

1.  Nacoste, R.W. (2006).  What Rough Beast: Intergroup Tensions in the Age of Neo-Diversity.  Forum on Public Policy, 2 (#3), 556-569.

2.  Dokoupil, T. (2013, October 15), “’Very anxious’: Is America scared of diversity?” Report on a national Esquire-NBC-News survey (http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/15/20961149-very-anxious-is-america-scared-of-diversity?lite).

3. Appadurai, A. (2006). Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

4.      The Psychology of Interdependence and Race is designed to explore how interpersonal relationships are structured and how two-person interactions within those structures are influenced by race. Drawing on the major social psychological theory of interpersonal relationships - Interdependence Theory - this course will provide students with an understanding of the various structures of interpersonal relationships in order to explore how and why the presence of race (and other diversity categories) influence the ways in which people try to interact with each other within those interpersonal structures.

5. Sherwood, J. D. (2006). Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial unrest in the fleet during the Vietnam War era. New York: New York University Press.

6. Tyson, T. B. (2004). Blood done sign my name. New York: Broadway Books.

7. For example, Kawakami, K., Phills, C. E, Steele, J.R. & Dovidio, J. F. (2007). (Close) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Improving Implicit Racial Attitudes and Interracial Interactions Through Approach Behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 92: 957-971; Plant, E. A. & Devine, P. (2003). The antecedents and implications of interracial anxiety. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29: pp. 790-801

8. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books

9. Nacoste, R. W. (2013). Speaking up for neo-diverse America. TEDxNCSU (March 23). YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y73bRAwJY6I