The topic of racism makes me think about Erving Goffman's 1963 book Stigma. Some of the terms used in the book are pretty grating to modern sensibilities, but I still think it's a pretty insightful book in many ways. I apologize for quoting so much, here, but there's a lot that applies to race, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc.
Originally Posted by Goffman p2Originally Posted by Goffman p3 p4
Kinds of Stigma
He then goes on to divide stigmas into type types:
- discredited - stigma is already known or visible
- discreditable - stigma is unknown and/or hidden
He also divides stigmas this way:
- those of body - physical deformities, disease, and/or damage
- those of character - psychological problems, overly rigid belief systems, alcoholism, homosexuality, radical political behavior
- those of tribe - race, nation and religion... an be transmitted through families and generation
I think it's interesting here to call out the differences between "those of tribe" and those that are not heritable. Those who are brought up in a stigmatized tribe are usually brought up knowing of their group membership, and inducted into a sub-culture that supports it. Those in the other categorized tend to have to come to terms with their stigmatization independently, and build or find a support network themselves.
Originally Posted by Goffman p5 p6 p7
He also talks about ways the stigmatized respond to the lack of acceptance. They include:
- "fixing" the problem - surgery, psychotherapy, etc
- reclaiming an activity ordinarily closed off to the stigma - such as a blind person learning to ski
- using it as an excuse for failure or ill-fortune - embracing "victimhood"
- seeing the trials of the stigma as "blessings in disguise"
- adapting a wider perspective that sees the stigma as a more limited problem
He also talks about how "normals" and those with stigma (particularly visible ones) often arrange things so they don't have to interact regularly. Therefore, a contact with a "normal" may serve as a reminder to the stigmatized of his or her stigma. The stigmatized person feels like he or she is on-stage, having to manage the impression he or she is giving. The stigmatized person also feels like in such situations he or she doesn't know what the other person "really" thinks of him or her. Minor accomplishments may be assessed as signs of noteworthy or remarkable achievements under the circumstances.
Conversely, minor incidents or failings that would wouldn't be noteworthy for normals may be taken as an expression of the stigmatized difference.
Meanwhile, the normals in such settings vacillate between trying to ignore the stigma, and fear of mis-stepping or making unrealistic demands. If those fail, we may just ignore the person with the stigma.
He also also talks about two groups of people from whom the stigmatized can expect some support: others sharing the stigma, and "the wise," which are the non-stigmatized who are privy to and sympathetic with the stigmatized group. The wise are often accepted by the stigmatized group and given a measure of courtesy membership.Originally Posted by Goffman p26
The discredited are the people whose stigma is already known and/or is immediately obvious. Their main challenge is dealing with reactions to their stigma and seeking acceptance despite their stigma. They have to continually live with the social effects of their stigma, and so tend to socialize more with others who share the stigma (since contact with "normals" makes them aware of the stigmatized status). They also tend to form stronger support networks, since there the question of "passing" as a normal isn't an issue.
The discreditable have to struggle with whether and when to reveal themselves, and also guilt for accepting treatment that whey would be unlikely to receive if the other knew of their stigma.Originally Posted by Goffman p 42
On the price of passing:Originally Posted by Goffman p 84
Originally Posted by Goffman p87
Originally Posted by Goffman p109
Originally Posted by Goffman p112Originally Posted by Goffman p121
Why All This Is Useful
I think Goffman's conception of stigma and its effects is useful because it helps separate out the social effects of stigma from aspects specific to race, physical disability, sexual orientation, etc. It helps make it more clear that social stigma tends to create certain kinds of dynamics and coping mechanisms apart from the source of the stigma. I think some aspects Goffman points out lead to what some call "identity politics."
I also think most of us deal with some kinds of social stigma (minor in some cases) pretty regularly: people with mild stutters, people on anti-depressants, people with Asperger's, people who are in a racial minority and people with family members who have some kind of stigma.