Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

It’s in the news and yet it is not new that physical characteristics such as skin color, gender, age and even height impact how people treat each other. Indeed visible diversities, including certain signals of religious identity or disability status, frequently have an influence on the way an interaction between individuals or groups unfolds. That is, certain ways of being, indexed by visual characteristics, are considered good, correct or proper. Those who fit the set of physical/visual norms that are valued in a particular culture, group or environment will find themselves privileged. Those failing to fit the norm are typically stigmatized, marginalized and subject to harms ranging from micro-aggressions to murder.

What may be less well explored in the media coverage is that privilege is typically a multiplier due to how our cognitive systems process information. My looking right has a powerful effect on assumptions about my worth in a particular social context. Based almost exclusively on a quality that does not reliably confer virtue—my physical appearance—I will be granted additional positive qualities (the halo effect) and someone lacking the desired or prototypical look will be assumed to be lacking other qualities as well (the horn effect).

There are at least two reasons that the halo/horn effect deserves deeper consideration. First, it is an example of how first impressions, based on minimal and/or superficial information, set the stage for an interaction. I look at the driver of a car I’ve stopped for a broken taillight and I see that he is black. Black skin confers the horn effect and my mind automatically begins to ascribe negative traits to him and react to his subsequent behavior with these assumptions in place. In the harsh light of the negative attributions engendered by the horn effect, were anything a bit out of the ordinary to occur, I am unlikely to be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Second, the halo/horn effect highlights our tendency to treat new information in ways that conform to beliefs we already hold. The candidate sitting across from me in a job interview is male. Maleness activates the halo effect and he therefore has less to prove and any evidence he provides tends to be construed in line with positive expectations I already have for how effective, competent, driven, etc. male workers are (see this piece by Joan C. Williams for examples of what she calls the Prove It Again problem). As I ask my questions, rather than testing his fitness for the post I am trying to fill, I am seeking to confirm the suitability that his maleness, by virtue of the halo effect, has already cemented in my mind.

The good news is that we can mitigate the halo/horn effect if we make the effort to do so. We can’t stop at first impressions, nor focus solely on those factors that support our case. We need to check our assumptions and expectations against reality and we need to be aware that our version of reality is only our version and seek the opinions and feedback of diverse others. Finally, we can presume that others are always trying to do their best and allow this attribution of good intentions to create a halo effect of its own.


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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

Words can make a difference – #ArmsR4Hugging

The way you talk about something frames what you see and how you react. Your choice of words is often a signal of your attitude toward to person, situation or topic. Several therapy modes derive their efficacy from helping people to shift the language they use to talk about themselves, their feelings and their lives. How we refer to something also creates expectations — social justice movements reclaiming pejorative words, the effect of grouping people into categories as in Jane Elliot’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise and the self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in the nocebo effect are all examples of the how the way something is described can impact our beliefs and our behavior.

There is power in the words we use; labels direct our attention to certain characteristics or aspects of the people and circumstances we encounter. While calling something or someone by a particular name may not make it so, it does influence how this thing or person is perceived and that perception can come to be seen as the truth. Furthermore, euphemisms can facilitate avoiding the acknowledgement of hard truths about the reality we are living.

As we struggle to come to grips with multiple tragedies across the globe, we may wonder, can our words really make a difference? I want to embolden you to try to answer that question in the affirmative with a small thought experiment:

What if “small arms” were what children use when they hug someone?
What if being “well armed” meant you were set up for hugging at any time?
What if “arms dealers” were offering more and better hugging options?
What if the phrase “bear arms” applied only to teddy bears, etc.?

Perhaps these examples seem trivial or silly, however, doesn’t it strike you that people whose heads are filled with thoughts of children, people hugging and cuddly toys are less likely to be promulgating hate, dismissing dialog and collaboration, or using deadly force? If so, join me in a small act of reappropriation with #ArmsR4Hugging.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Words can make a difference – #ArmsR4Hugging

On care and understanding

 

My stretch this week is to practice openness, curiosity and appreciation when the news is filled with stories that see these qualities trampled. Below are a few links that help me remember there is energy around understanding and caring for each other. If you’ve seen or read something hopeful recently, please let me know or add your links in the comments.

MN librarian creates #BlackLivesMatter booklist for teens
http://www.slj.com/2016/07/books-media/librarian-creates-blacklivesmatter-booklist-for-teens/#_  (Shout out to Susan Thurston Hamerski for sharing this)

The Southern Poverty Law Center responds to the violence
https://www.splcenter.org/news/2016/07/08/three-days-violence-baton-rouge-st-paul-and-dallas

A dear friend and colleague keeps it personal in response to Orlando and the death of Ali
http://www.transformativeleadership.net/thoughts.html

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

On care and understanding

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief

Encountering a situation where diversity is not respected, where we feel excluded or shamed or stigmatized simply for being who we are, or for striving to be who we want to become, is typically accompanied by painful emotions. Being made to feel less than due to membership in a particular class of people, possession of, or a failure to possess, a particular characteristic or trait, or identifying with a cause, creed or group, results in feelings of grief, fear and despair. According to Miriam Greenspan, “…we are schooled to endure, deny, bypass [or transcend], avenge, and escape painful emotions. These five common ways of coping have their strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part they aren’t conducive to healing and transformation” (pp. 58-59, Healing Through the Dark Emotions). Understanding how utilizing any of these five coping strategies can block our growth and well-being, will help us to create ways to work with and through our painful emotions instead.

Endurance is the ability to withstand suffering without collapsing” (p. 59). Endurance can be a valuable skill in the short term, allowing us to survive long enough to reappraise our situation and regain our strength. However the longer we simply put up with things that cause us suffering, the more we give up our power and our agency, our ability to be the authors of our own lives. In addition, if we don’t question the system or individuals whose actions we are enduring, we may never learn that there is the possibility for change.

Denial is the unconscious detachment from emotion and the truth that emotion holds” (p. 60). Judicious use of denial can help us to accomplish tasks that might otherwise appear to be beyond our capabilities due to fear of failure or concerns about our performance. However when we push our suffering away, we are unable to hear the messages that our painful emotions hold, messages that let us know that we are being harmed. When we can process these messages, we can ask for the help we need.

[Spiritual bypass] denies the evils of earthly existence and declares that only love and light are ‘real’…” (p. 60). Privileging the good things in our lives can lead to an increased sense of gratitude and stop us from limiting our dreams and desires. However when we restrict our focus to what is positive, we may mortgage our present for some ideal future that will never arrive because we have not properly assessed the challenges and obstacles before us.

In vengeance, we neither bury nor rise above our suffering; we get mad and we get even” (p. 61). When we avenge a wrong by concentrating on how we can make the world a better place, we can build a stronger community that is able to learn from the suffering of its members. However by turning our attention outward, to the other, we can miss the impact our painful experience had on our souls, we may fail to see how we were diminished and that we need time and space to heal and rejuvenate.

Buying, owning, using gadgets, consuming experiences — these are the hallmarks of a culture of escape; so is the inability to tolerate silence. The most extreme forms of escape with the most devastating consequences are addictions” (p. 62). Distraction can be a powerful tool when we use it to give our minds and souls space to work through difficult and troubling experiences outside our conscious awareness. However, unlike all of the other coping mechanisms that begin with some acknowledgement, no matter how fleeting, that something bad is happening, distraction is an escape from the recognition that we are hurting. When we mask our pain with action and make no time for quiet reflection, we may be undermining our ability to recognize when we are suffering and immerse ourselves in distractions even when life is good.

When things are tough and grief, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we can turn to one of the five coping strategies above. We can also decide to look at our experience and sit with the feelings it arouses. By allowing ourselves to process the dark emotions rather than endure, deny, bypass, avenge or escape them, we have the opportunity for learning. To help us achieve wisdom and transformation, Greenspan (p. 268) suggests asking ourselves:

  • “Out of knowing and being with my (fear, grief, despair), my task is to…
  • When I view my dark emotions as teachers I learn…
  • Instead of avoiding dark emotions, I can use them creatively by…

Respecting rather than replacing our fear, despair and grief can repay us in dividends of self-compassion, joy and healing.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Respecting the lessons of despair, fear and grief