This post will use the work and philosophy of Susan Cook-Greuter to analyze a common dynamic in the black community. The dynamic is on a personal level, and it happens when a person is accused of not wanting to identify with the black community when they display a personality trait not usually seen in the black community. Often people are charged with “Talking White” by speaking correctly. However, there are many other common triggers for this dynamic a few include:
+ Having dress inspired by a culture other than Hip-Hop
+ Striving to leave an economically depressed area
+ Having a culturally diverse group of friends
Typically the dynamic plays out with a black person that is focused more on goals, to ease communication I will call this person by the Cook-Greuter stage Conventional, and a black person more focused on relationships at the Cook-Greuter level Pre-Conventional. The Conventional person displays a personality trait seen as not prevalent in the black community. The Pre-Conventional person feels the relationship being threatened and attempts to reign the Conventional person back into the fold. The Pre-Conventional person’s need to restrain leads to a verbal or sometimes physical conflict. Frequently, the Conventional person is labeled a “sell-out, ” and the Pre-Conventional person is labeled “ghetto.” These labels are internalized and create conflict and suffering throughout the life of both individuals. Reframing the issue will allow for both parties to move forward in a healthy manner.
Many people will say the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic is nothing more than simple bullying or conflict experienced by all kids of all races. The difference between an intelligent black child being called “white” and an intelligent white child being called a “nerd” is the attack on identity. If a white child is referred to as a nerd, he is given an identity. If a black child is called white, he has his identity taken away. In the early stages of ego development identity is a chief concern. Therefore, the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic can be severely damaging to youth. The damage continues into adulthood and becomes an emotional shadow. Also, the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic is played out in adults in more subtle ways. However, a brief summary of Susan Cook-Greuter’s methodology and philosophy is needed before further discussion.
Summary of the work of Susan Cook-Greuter
Susan Cook-Greuter is a Harvard psychologist who studied Ego Development, the concept that there is a set progression of a person’s view of himself. The progression of self-concept or ego can be identified, and there are common themes and personality traits in each stage. A person cannot skip a step, and everyone goes through each stage in the same order. People can stay in one stage all their life. However, there will be a few individuals that move up the entire hierarchy.
Comprehensive Language Awareness (CLA) is the basis for Cook-Greuter’s philosophy. In CLA, reality is seen as a continuum of interdependent sensations. Language is a concept that is used to differentiate the sensations to allow for further understanding and expanding our experience to other people using communication. As we age, we perceive the various concepts created in language as reality. The confusion between the concepts and reality cause suffering.
Because language is the external expression of internal reality, the complexity of one’s language is measured. The individual’s language complexity can be used to determine the individual’s view of reality. Susan Cook-Greuter devised a language test administered over ten thousand times. She saw nine distinct stages after analyzing all the data. Other psychologists independently confirmed the stages.
There are nine (9) stages in Susan Cook-Greuter’s philosophy. A very brief description of each stage can be found below with the main fear. Fear is one of many attributes that define each stage.
0. Symbiotic Stage: The stage of all infants there is no differentiation of the self and other. The concept of fear has not developed.
Impulsive: This level lasts from toddler to twelve years old, and self is seen as “in need, ” and other is seen as “provider.” The main fear is abandonment.
Self-protective: This level is common in the teenagers. The self is seen as stronger or weaker than other. The power dynamic is used to meet needs. The main fear is domination by others.
Conformist: This level focuses on being seen by others or “respected.” Fitting into external standards to be seen as acceptable to others is the chief strategy for getting needs met. The main fear is dissolution or change in the peer group.
4. Expert: This level focuses on a person discovering their unique talent and differentiating themselves. Self is different and superior to others, at least superior in some ways. Chief fear is loss of status
5. Achiever: This level has honed the talent and has begun to reap tangible results. Self is different and capable of understanding others. Chief fear is the loss of autonomy.
6. Pluralist: This level understands self is using an arbitrary framework to understand the world. Self understands frameworks of others; all frameworks are equally valid. Chief fear is not finding one’s true self
7. Autonomous: This level understands that frameworks are ultimately fallible and make meaning without frameworks. Self in as part of a historical continuum filled with others. Main fear is not living up to a person’s full potential.
8. Postautonomous stage: This level understands the self is just a framework, and a self-imposed life story is the cause of suffering. Main fear is no one will be able to understand them at this advanced stage.
9. Unitive: This level has let go of the concept of ego completely. No chief fear because there is no “self” to threaten. However, the idea of self is available if needed.
To bring the conversation back to the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic, the basis of the conflict is the incompatibility in fears. A Pre-Conventional paradigm is chiefly in fear of abandonment in one form or another. A Conventional paradigm is primarily fears loss of individualism. If the Conventional person does something to make the Pre-Conventional question the group identity, then the Pre-Conventional has to stop the Conventional person. If pressure is placed on the Conventional person, they will always defend their individuality. The two paradigms are horribly incompatible.
The conflict can be especially damaging for black people on both sides. In today’s more integrated world black people are often in a situation with few other black people. If being around the few other black people near him is taxing, he will often write-off black people. Many blacks don’t associate with other black people due to emotional shadows from the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional conflict. Sometimes the disdain is explicitly stated, and sometimes the disdain is not explicitly stated.
I will use an example from my life to illustrate how this conflict plays out.
In college, I worked in a laboratory doing research on artificial joints. Many of the other students in the program were graduate students, and after work, we would go to a local brewery. The brewery was a predominately white establishment, but I did not feel uncomfortable. I felt I was with my peers and co-workers. I liked the place, and I decided to take one of my black friends, Eddie, there on the weekend.
When we got there I got a beer, and he got wine. Most people at a brewery drink beer. He went back for a second wine, and he felt he had to wait a long time. He assumed that the bartender did not want to serve him because he was black. Many people believe black people do not tip. I countered by saying it is a busy night and this is your first time here. He should come more, so people get to know him. My rebuttal to Eddie’s conclusion that the incident was racially motivated sent Eddie through the roof and demanded we leave. He felt I was defending white people and I was blind to racism right in front of me.
He went on to say how he felt he could not relate to me. In his opinion, I did not identify with black culture enough. I will admit I did worry about racism less in college. My focus was on achieving, making good grades, and getting a good job. At the time I felt that racism was a distraction. Only concentrate on the things you can control. If Eddie or any of my other friends brought up racism, I would change the subject. I justified it by saying that I only want positivity in my life.
One of the many drawbacks of the Conventional stage is hyper-rationality. Hyper-rationality is when a person sees only the material side of an issue. When Eddie said he had to wait a long time for a drink and he felt that it was due to racism, I thought well he has a drink now, and he can’t prove that the wait was due to racism. I could only see the material aspect of the issue.
In addition to not seeing the emotional side of the issue, I was also heavily invested in feeling that individual striving could overcome racism. I wanted to be an engineer and have financial stability. If racism could derail me, then I will not be successful, and I will no longer have status. Also, if racism is prevalent, it is selfish for me to concentrate on my success. The bigger problem is racism, and I should be fighting racism. The extreme focus on my striving led to creating a shadow. The shadow is something that people of all races create to justify having a focus on self. A shadow I only recently gained the tools to dissect properly.
People in the Conventional stage have a hard time relating to the emotional side of the situation. My friend was hurting, and I should have been there for him. If he wanted to leave, I should have just left. My need for good beer was not that significant. The friendship was more important, and in hindsight, I did not have the capability to preserve the relationship.
Over the years we had about a million arguments around the same theme. I moved to South Carolina, and we lost contact. I often think about various arguments we had and replay them in my head. I want to know if I was justified in my rebuttals to the arguments. I wonder if his criticisms of me were valid. In retrospect none of that matters, it is all about the relationship.
I believe understanding the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional conflict in all its forms superimposed on race is a crucial step in healing the divide between black people. We have to get past all the labels we put on each other and ourselves. If not we will sabotage each other at every turn.
The Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional emotional shadow can start to be resolved in the Post-Conventional stage. In the Post-Conventional stage, people begin to let go of the idea of ego. They can also begin to accept and understand their shadow. In most of the Conventional stage, any criticism is an attack on the self. Post-Conventional people can take criticism and self-critique if necessary. If you find yourself or know someone wanting to tackle this issue here are some steps you can take to dissolve the shadow.
Steps to take to resolve this issue
First thing is a person needs to own that they have an emotional shadow around this issue. Evaluate how this particular issue plays out through journaling. Do not concentrate on what the other person did to you. Focus on the areas you could have changed and possible blind spots you have due to a hyper-focus on personal success. You can only control yourself, so become the best person you can be. Also, have defenses ready when you encounter the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic.
It would also be a good exercise to go through all the labels you have put on yourself and others when going through this dynamic. Often you may call someone “Ghetto” in a Pre-Conventional stage or if they are in a Conventional stage, “Boujee.” These labels cut both ways. By labeling someone “Ghetto,” you label yourself as “not Ghetto.” Then a subset of self – identity forms in which you can not do or like things that are “Ghetto.” The need to hold on to a “not Ghetto” identity can cause various pathologies including, overspending, isolating yourself, or disparaging other blacks. Much of the inter-class conflict in the black community comes from dealing with this dynamic.
Remember dealing with emotional shadows is a serious issue. There is a good chance you may never fully recover from the damage. Do not listen to people telling you this is a trivial concern. The effects of the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic are your experience and only you know the amount of damaged caused by the experience.
What to do if your child goes through this?
Now that we live in a more integrated society the experience of black people is more stratified. In addition to a wider variety of experiences, we have more exposure to whites and white culture. So the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic will become more and more prevalent. If you child comes home complaining about the way other black kids treat him, don’t shame the child for his or her feelings. If you do shame your child, they will hide the feelings from you and later their friends. The worst case will be the child develops an emotional shadow around the feelings at a young age that they never overcome.
The first thing you should do is realize that the child’s conflict with other black kids is due to advanced ego development. It is not the result of shame in being black or arrogance. Once you realize that your child experiencing this conflict is not a bad thing, help the child to reframe the issue around differing values in each person. Pre-Conventional stage people are focused on relationships. Conventional level people are focused on goals. Once the child realizes that the issue is not about whether they are “black enough” they can approach the situation at a more logical level. It could be true that the best short-term strategy is to avoid the other children, but when a new group of people comes around the child will be able to look at those people with a fresh face. A new relationship will not be affected by old baggage.
Emotional shadows caused by the Pre-Conventional vs. Conventional dynamic cause serious trouble in the black community. There needs to be a serious effort to reframe the dynamic that allows us to reflect on the situation in a more logical manner.
Most of the information for this blog post came from “Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace” by Susan Cook-Greuter. For more on Susan Cook-Greuter check out her website http://www.cook-greuter.com.
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