It wasn’t what I expected, but it was good. I picked up Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity to understand the issue from a societal perspective and what could be done to address the challenges that so many people face as they’re stereotyped and stigmatized. I was expecting a discussion on how to change society to be more accepting, like After the Ball. I picked it up due to a reference in Suicide Among Gifted Children and Adolescents. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Stigma was published initially in 1963 and that the author, Erving Goffman, is one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. What I found in his work was a personal playbook for managing your identity when you believe you’ve been stigmatized.
When someone is stigmatized, there is some attribute – normally an attribute that has some level of observability by others – upon which that the stigma is based. The attribute can be physical, as in the color of skin – or it can be something like mental illness.
In A Class Divided, William Peters explains the experiment that Jane Elliott did to teach the impact of stereotyping and stigmatizing to her class after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She divided her students on the basis of eye color and treated them differently based on the day. Even though it was just a classroom exercise lasting a few days, her students quickly identified people based on their eye color – even calling her out for being one of the “lesser” eye colors on days when her eye color was treated as lesser.
The profound realizations from this experiment included the fact that these stigmas could be created very quickly and easily – and that they can be based on completely irrelevant attributes. It doesn’t really matter.
The words to explain the relationship between the degree of stigmatization and the attribute include obtrusiveness – how obvious the attribute is. The other words that are used to describe the attribute are perceptibility and evidentness. For someone to be stigmatized, there must be some awareness of the attribute, and that relies on the degree to which it’s observable to others – or the degree to which they’ve been informed. On the completely, non-evident end of the spectrum, we have the woman who has lost her virginity outside of wedlock. There is no outward visible change. On the other end are attributes that can’t be missed. Consider someone with a facial birthmark. It’s nearly impossible for another person to miss.
In between are situations where upbringing might be subtly betrayed by choice of word or language. For instance, saying that something is “so ghetto” might betray having grown up in poverty. Something as simple as saying that the chili you had growing up had noodles in it also portrays a certain sense of lower income. For someone to have a stigma for those who grew up in or near poverty, they may not know until something has been said.
One of the greatest tragedies of our experience with others is when we make others subhuman. Hitler made the Nazis view Jews as subhuman and the genocide that followed is an indelible mark on humanity. In America, slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person – an inexcusable representation of a human. In moderate to extreme forms, stigma is the devaluing of other humans. In their otherness, they are somehow less worthy of the birthright of the rest of humanity. In this, we disengage our morality as is explained in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect. While this external condemnation is unacceptable in any form, too many people experience it inside their own minds, berating themselves as not worthy of the kindness and respect deserved by every human.
The internal view of oneself is driven in ways that we’re not cognizant of. If we’re attached to one stigma/stereotype, we experience better results; pick another, equally relevant, stigma/stereotype, and we’ll do worse. We subtly pick up on the environment and how we’re treated by others and start to believe those things about ourselves. All of a sudden, we don’t need others to tell us that we’re inferior, we’ll do it ourselves in voices that we cannot consciously hear.
When Al Campanis was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he punched a bigoted player who insulted Jackie Robinson. The result ushered in the addition of black players to Major League Baseball. At a time when racism was firmly entrenched, and there was great personal risk to protect Robinson, Campanis did it anyway. He did it, because he knew Jackie personally and knew him to be more than what the stigma associated with his race said he should be. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on the story.)
Similarly, we can avoid stigma with people who we’ve known personally prior to their stigmatizing attribute being known. Consider people whose relative poverty growing up isn’t discovered for years, until after a friendship has formed. The awareness of their poverty, while being quite impactful for others, will likely not apply to the friend.
There are, however, many limits to this, as Al Campanis’ full story illustrates. While Campanis was able to override the stigma of Robinson’s skin color for the purposes of playing baseball, he still thought that Robinson wasn’t fit to be a manager. He was wrong – but in part because the stigma leaked through, past his relationship with Robinson.
The most effective way to work past stigma is to develop meaningful relationships with individuals in the stigmatized groups – and allow them to expose where the stigma may still remain, even with them.
There comes a question for those whose attribute can be hidden: should it? The answer is complicated. Obviously, exposing it too early may prevent the ability to form the very kind of relationship that can reduce the impact of the stigma personally and potentially unfasten the moorings on which it’s based. However, it may be that hiding this attribute may come at great personal difficulty – and as such, one must make an informed decision about whether they can “keep up the ruse.”
Ultimately, concealment is a psychically draining situation that should be minimized where possible. The best advice is always to be yourself. (See How to Be Yourself.)
Concealing the stigmatizing attribute from others may focus your attention on it and make it more prevalent in your thinking. Stigma is a hard thing to avoid.