Today, I am inspired to write some thoughts on symbolism after reading a few essays from Patricia J. Williams’ The Rooster’s Egg: On the Persistence of Racism. This collection of semi-journalistic works is fascinating, humorous, revealing, and depressing all at once. Williams is an extremely intelligent scholar, and a brilliant author.
A theme that runs throughout many of her works concerns the ways that symbolism exists in American society. Her analysis focuses mainly on issues of race and gender stereotypes that are perpetuated across the American landscape, and the consequences they leave on national sentiment and public policy alike. I found her ideas on the subject to be extremely enlightening, and moreover very much in line with the literature concerning mental categorization and labeling I’ve read in my psychology studies.
I want to write a more in depth piece on this subject at a later date so I won’t get too deep here. But I think the conversation about how symbols are used to manipulate individuals and societies is incredibly important to have. In many of cognitive psychology classes I took I was exposed to the theoretical mechanisms governing how information is stored and classified in our minds. What struck me as interesting from this field was just how arbitrarily our brains can sort data into one category or another- depending on context and previous experiences, two people can have extremely different opinions on where any given experience lands in the grand scheme of what is what. For example, I remember one study that examined how human beings categorize groups of people when given limited information. The study found that people use facts such as type of clothing worn, attitudes held, vocation, and a bunch of other descriptions to group strangers together before they use race (AKA- a black person and a white person both wearing yellow are more likely to be grouped together than a two black people wearing two different colors).
Our brains evolved in tribal groups where quickly distinguishing friend from foe was a highly-valued ability. Undoubtably we possess tools for making these decisions today, and I am convinced that many of the current power dynamics of our country represent the strategic manipulation of our tendencies to do so. Symbols of group identity, theoretically, should suggest that a person demarcated by this symbol is a member of a given group. But this leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation of what exactly a symbol might be, and whether or not it actually can indicate membership in a given group. Cars, clothes, haircuts- all of these can be symbols of group identity, or they may not. Similarly, location of a person, associations a person might have, or even some idiosyncratic trait only the observer of the symbol recognizes could trigger a correlation with a group identity.
The point is, its not hard to draw quick connections that might not reflect reality. I worry that not only do we know this, but people in power actively abuse this trait to preserve their power. More to come…