chapter  3
18 Pages

African Americans respond to stigmatization: the meanings and salience of confronting, deflecting conflict, educating the ignorant and ‘managing the self ’

WithCrystal M. Fleming, Michèle Lamont, Jessica S. Welburn

Goffman (1963) identified the myriad ways people with ‘discrediting’ attributes manage their spoiled identities. While sociologists and social psychologists have analysed how members of stigmatized ethno-racial

groups manage their stigma, we have yet to develop a systematic survey of the range of strategies that people use, of their relative salience, and of the conditions that elicit some strategies over others. Potential strategies include explicitly confronting stereotypes and prejudices; avoiding conflict by moulding one’s self-presentation so as to prevent discomfort in others; offering concrete proof of equality (e.g. through competence or the display of expensive consumer goods); and asserting cultural membership, feelings of self-worth and even superiority over dominant groups. This paper draws on interviews with 150 randomly sampled middle-and working-class African Americans living in the New York suburbs to inform our knowledge of responses to stigmatization. This is crucial given the USA’s continued history of racial discrimination. While some celebrated America’s colour-blindness and post-racialism after the Obama elections, as survey data and our interviews suggest, African Americans continue to perceive pervasive racism, and to anticipate and respond to stereotyping and discrimination. This emotional work is a crucial part of their daily experience and has a direct impact on racial disparities in health and well-being (Williams, Neighbors and Jackson 2008; Lamont 2009). Everyday responses to stigmatization are defined as the rhetorical

and strategic tools deployed by individual members of stigmatized groups in reaction to perceived stigmatization (including exclusion, misrecognition, racism and discrimination). Psychologists have given consideration to the intra-psychological mechanisms through which members of stigmatized groups cope with perceived stigma (e.g. Crocker, Major and Steele 1998; Clark et al. 1999; Pinel 1999; Oyserman and Swim 2001; for a review of the literature on stigma, see Link and Phelan 2000). They do so by improving subjective wellbeing through goal attainment and self-enhancement (Oyserman, Coon and Kemmelmeier 2002). Because social psychologists draw on experiments, they bypass a wide range of responses to stigma that inductive analysis reveals. And in contrast to our approach, they do not put meaning-making at the front and centre of their analysis in their concern for in-group and out-group biases (Tajfel and Turner 1979). Social scientists have documented several aspects of African Amer-

ican anti-racism:1 oppositional consciousness and anti-racist social movements (e.g.McAdam 1988); everyday struggles and talk (Frederick 2003;Harris-Lacewell 2004); and responses to racism e.g. howmiddleclass blacks find allies, downplay differences and denounce abuse (most importantly, Feagin 1991; Feagin and Sikes 1994; Anderson 1999; Lacy 2007). Moreover, research that does not concern everyday antiracism for instance, studies of why and how African Americans invest in education (Warikoo and Carter 2009), engage in high culture (Banks 2009), understand mobility (Young 2004), conceptualize racial differences (Morning 2009) and demarcate themselves from ‘ghetto blacks’

(Pattillo-McCoy 1999) informs our understanding of responses to stigmatization. In addition, Lamont and her co-authors have studied how stigmatized groups go about gaining recognition, considering (1) how elite African Americans use religion and competence (Lamont and Fleming 2005), (2) how black marketing specialists use consumption (Lamont and Molna´r 2002), (3) how minority workers in France and the USA use a wider range of types of evidence of racial equality than white workers (Lamont 2000; Lamont and Aksartova 2002), and (4) howNorth African blue-collar workers in France multiply strategies to establish their similarity and cultural compatibility with the French (Lamont, Morning and Mooney 2002). We build on these studies to broaden our theoretical and empirical understanding of responses to stigma. Our empirical contribution consists in providing detailed knowledge

about responses to stigmatization based on a systematically collected and coded data set of interviews with African Americans. These data make it possible to identify the range and relative salience of responses to stigmatization found in this population. We also focus on ‘best approaches’ for dealing with racism, as well as on more subtle responses (i.e. ‘managing the self’) that have not been considered in previous research.2