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Right Now

In this issue's Right Now section:
Fire & Ice on Snowball Earth - The Prophet and the Profit - Minority Wannabes - The Thousand-year Clambake - E-mail and Web Information


Minority Wannabes

When a light-skinned black professor is slated for appointment at a northwestern law school, the black students' association declares she isn't "black enough." When a deaf Miss America uses oral English instead of American Sign Language, deaf activists complain she isn't "deaf enough." When a group of bisexual men and women participate in a gay pride parade, organizers refuse to include "bisexuals" in the parade banner because they're not "gay enough." These are headline instances of what social psychologist Judith White, Ph.D. '98, identifies as "horizontal hostility," a minority group's rejection of so-called "wannabes." The concept was coined during the 1970s women's movement to describe feminist infighting.

"It wouldn't be news if it was mutual hostility--it would just be two groups that didn't like each other," says White, a visiting scholar at the Business School. But her work reveals the phenomenon to be surprisingly unidirectional. "There's a status hierarchy in minority groups," she says. "And it's the higher status--meaning more stigmatized, more distinctive--minority group that shows this prejudice against a less stigmatized, more mainstream minority group. It's always in that direction and never the other."

In four field studies, White and coauthor Ellen Langer, professor of psychology, selected minority groups that could be organized along a distinctiveness continuum. One study, for example, examined Jewish students at Harvard who identified themselves as reform, conservative, or orthodox; another studied members of the conservative, socialist, progressive, and communist political parties in Greece. In all settings, preliminary analysis showed that more-distinctive minority groups, such as gays and lesbians, evaluate "moderate" minority groups, such as bisexuals, relatively unfavorably, compared to how they evaluate themselves and the heterosexual majority.

One study ostensibly examined public funding for artists. The researchers showed a portfolio of nature photographs to a sample of 191 women and 92 men recruited at an outdoor rock concert and at a gay pride rally. The pictures were accompanied by a bio of the "artist," attributing different genders and sexual orientations to the latter. Bisexuals gave the portfolio an average score of 5.9 (on a 0 to 9 scale) when the "artist" was gay or lesbian and 4.6 when heterosexual. But when lesbians and gays judged the portfolio, their average score for a bisexual artist (5.2) was virtually the same as that for a heterosexual artist (5.0), while a lesbian/gay artist earned an average score of 5.9. This is counterintuitive, White points out, since the bisexual artist gained no benefit from being similar to lesbians and gays.

"What's new about this research is that it goes from studying two groups to studying three or four groups at a time," says White. Until now, social psychologists have investigated intergroup conflict using a two-group paradigm, which effectively camouflages horizontal hostility. "Once you narrow it down to just two groups and you treat one as the minority, then by definition the other is the majority," White says, adding, "We tend to see more differences within our own group than within other groups." While the majority seems to bifurcate the social world, minorities are keenly aware of a multiplicity of groups.

As the old "melting pot" image of American culture gives way to the "tossed salad" metaphor, a multigroup model becomes essential for understanding intergroup relations. "There is a powerful force toward assimilation, but there must also be a counterforce to maintain some distinctiveness from the majority," notes White. "People take pride in their minority identity, even if their group is stigmatized by mainstream society--and they show us that pride by trying to hold off those they consider 'wannabes.'" Such "moderate" biracial or bisexual minorities--who experience prejudice from the majority and horizontal hostility from the minority--frequently feel they must choose one or the other.

Wanting to identify with a distinctive group is not that different from wanting to join an exclusive country club, says White: your membership is valuable only to the extent that very few people can get in, and you can easily tell who's in and who's out. And, she notes, "It's more prestigious to be part of a club that you join for life than one you join on an annual basis."

What's at stake in either case are prized resources. Another White and Langer study explored the attitudes of varsity soccer players, who control and guard such resources as playing time, recognition, and coach support. "They're not threatened by intramural or recreational players, who could never take resources away from them," White says. "But junior varsity players are the most likely to stick their hands in the cookie jar--so they're the targets of hostility."

Yet varsity athletes are an elite minority. What is a stigmatized group trying to protect? "If they don't have any tangible resources, it must be a psychological resource--it must be the value of identity that's threatened," says White. "Heterosexuals may threaten lesbians' and gays' legal and civil rights, but bisexuals threaten the minority group identity. We tend not to recognize the value of minority identity. When we ask people to give it up, we're asking them to make a sacrifice that those in the majority rarely recognize."

~Harbour Fraser Hodder

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