|Jones, J. M. (2002). Toward a cultural psychology of
African Americans.. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A.
Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and
Culture (Unit 3, Chapter 1),
Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, Washington USA.
This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."
UNIT 3, CHAPTER 1
TOWARD A CULTURAL PSYCHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
James M. Jones
Department of Psychology
University of Delaware
The cultural psychology of African Americans involves the evolution of African patterns of thought, feeling and behavior and their utilization as adaptive mechanisms in a context of racism and oppression. Assumptions about cultural psychology as the intersection of psyche and culture, and African American psychology as the multidimensional response to dehumanization and psychic conflict are discussed. Time, Rhythm, Improvisation, Orature, and Spirituality (TRIOS) are proposed as psycho-cultural mechanisms of adaptation, innovation, and psychological control for African Americans. TRIOS is described as a way to understand the psyche-cultural interactions for African Americans, and to provide a framework for their cultural psychology.
In the first edition of Prejudice and Racism (Jones, 1972), in a multi-level analysis I described the persistent effects of dehumanizing and oppressive relationships between Whites and Blacks. Racism defined beliefs about the naturalness of white domination and black subordination. Individual racism captured micro-level psychological processes by which individuals internalized and acted upon their beliefs about race. Institutional racism was found in the instruments of society that dictated divergent social and economic outcomes on the basis of race. Cultural racism represented the cumulative set of beliefs, symbols, meanings and values that defined the meaning of race in our cultural worldview, informed institutional structure and practices and set the context for individual beliefs and actions.
Cultural racism produced the most pernicious racially biasing effects because it was through cultural mechanisms that the meaning of race was defined and implemented. However, "race" was viewed as a biology-based entity created by some naturally ordained force in the Universe. As a result, the culturally-determined meanings of race defined a social hierarchy of human groups based on observable physical features and presumptive psychological attributes. These core assumptions about "race" established a normative set of beliefs and expectations about the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks that have been handed down over centuries.
Anti-racism activities have been carried out within the racism paradigm. Challenging racist assumptions leads anti-racist activities to eliminate both the "superiority" assumption for whites and the "inferiority" assumption for blacks. As a result, the arguments against both assumptions are based on the premise that differences between blacks and whites are trivial. These differences, however, have been measured by human characteristics that are validated on the beliefs that emanate from a western, Anglo-American cultural worldview. Within this perspective, Blacks are validated only to the extent that they are believed to be similar to whites.
My aim in this paper is to consider the implications of this cultural racism analysis for African Americans. Specifically, I consider the possibility that adaptations to racism both create and reflect racial differences in psychological processes. Psychological differences among racial groups derive from different cultural origins, and evolve along different pathways as a result of different experiences with race. Blacks were dehumanized within American culture, and their adaptation to and liberation from that experience required the utilization and evolution of psychological mechanisms founded in their African cultural origins.
This chapter is not a comparative analysis of Blacks and Whites in America, nor is it an attempt to use an analysis of African Americans to make claims for universality of behavioral principles, or human attributes. Rather, what follows is a discussion of the psychological consequences of a situated human experience of a visible group of people that are socially, psychologically, politically and culturally significant in the United States. In the following pages, I will first summarize the basic working principles of cultural psychology, and then the working assumptions of African American psychology. I will then describe the core features that a cultural psychology of African Americans entails.
Assumptions about Culture and Cultural Psychology
Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) define culture as"...patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols ... [and may] on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, conditioning elements of future actions." (p. 181).
The basic elements of this definition suggest several critical features of culture: 1) the importance of symbols; 2) the distinction between, but dual validity of implicit meaning and explicit behavior; 3) the historical influence on contemporary events and their meaning; and 4) the dual nature of culture as a template for and a consequence of behavior.
Triandis (1994) emphasizes the subjective psychological nature of culture-- "A cultural group's characteristic way of viewing the man-made part of the environment." For Triandis, subjective culture is characterized by two important features that are derived from human interaction: 1) an individual's view (expectation; interpretation) is influenced by one's own experiences as well as the interactions others in the group may have; and 2) an individual may hold symbolic representations of the group's values and experiences, which affect behavior at a given moment in time. That is, the interpretative framework of meaning depends not only on the experiences one has directly with others, but what one believes about the experiences others in his or her group have had at various other times. These symbolic and identity-based beliefs play a critical role in what a person thinks, feels, sees or experiences.
Shweder & Sullivan (1992) define cultural psychology as the "..comparative study of the way culture and psyche make each other up." (pp. 497,498). Since culture and psyche are interchangeable, changes in one imply changes in the other. Culture evolves over time as it influences the outcomes of adaptation-coping sequences and is transformed by them. If Blacks and Whites evolved in different cultural circumstances prior to their contact with each other, and continued to have divergent experiences during their interactions over several centuries, it is certain that they would evolve divergent cultural psychologies as a consequence of these circumstances.
Fiske, Kitayama, Markus and Nisbett (1998) offer three specific objectives of cultural psychology: 1) to characterize varied cultural meanings and practices and the psychological structures and processes to which they are linked; 2) to discover the systematic principles underlying the diversity of culturally patterned socialities and psyches; 3) To describe the processes by which psyches and cultures construct each other.
In consideration of these cultural approaches, I take cultural psychology to be those "symbolic representations that condition and follow from behavior, giving rise to characteristic ways of perceiving, understanding, anticipating, valuing and behaving for members of a socially defined group." Culture evolves over time, defining the challenges its members must address and providing the interpretative schema and behavioral orientation to do so. Moreover, culture affects the thinking patterns, preferences and performances that, if not taken in cultural context, will be poorly understood.
Assumptions about African American Psychology
My first assumption is that African Americans comprise a multidimensional cultural group; characterized by diversity of experiences around a common core of cultural belief and origin. A more or less common template of cultural heritage, interacting with a diversity of experiences by virtue of one's place in or outside the system of slavery, and over the years, the cumulative consequences of a variety of factors including skin color, regional socialization, educational opportunities and gender. To talk about African Americans in the singular is in some ways to essentialize them in much the same flawed way the concept of race has done.
My second assumption is that the driving force behind the cultural psychology of African Americans is the fact of their systematic dehumanization over centuries, and their continued presence in the society that has dehumanized them. Adaptations to oppression call upon psychological tendencies and capacity to guide their deployment. Since African Americans continue to live within the society that has victimized and dehumanized them, the adaptations are ongoing, and their consequences are cumulative.
My third assumption is that psychological identity mediates the cultural adaptations to the dehumanizing forces and prescribes the means by which humanity is reclaimed or asserted. Psychological identity is not simply a psychological variable or a sense of worth or esteem, but a dynamic organization of the self in relationship to ones cultural group. Psychological identity has the capacity to influence perceptions and judgments, endorse values and rationalize beliefs. In this sense, the psychological processes of African Americans are derived from their socio-cultural context.
My fourth assumption is that the domains within which critical elements of the cultural psychology of African Americans evolve can be represented by TRIOS (Time Rhythm, Improvisation, Oral Expression and Spirituality). These domains comprise the adaptations and expressions of behavior that are fundamental to experience, and give rise to basic cultural psychology as defined by experience-near concepts. Shweder and Sullivan (1992) describe 'experience-near' as those psychological processes that occur so automatically or routinely that the boundary between psyche and culture is obliterated. The following section will briefly elaborate on each of these four assumptions.
Toward a Cultural Psychology of African Americans
A cultural psychology must account in some way for the interplay between psychological processes and cultural dynamics. For African Americans, this means that the cultural symbols, tendencies, values, beliefs, patterned ways of thinking and feeling interact with the psychological adaptations to the experiences of oppression and "otherness" in a racialized world. An individual's experience will to some extent reflect the distinctive pattern of his or her representation and internalization of these complex forces. The following account will describe how this dynamic interplay may aggregate toward a systematic pattern of culture-psyche interaction for African Americans.
African Americans comprise a multidimensional cultural group. African American cultural psychology is necessarily multidimensional in at least three ways: First is the joint function of Africa-originating cultural effects and the adaptive, reactionary mechanisms demanded by slavery and the experience in the Diaspora. Second, the social structure of slavery created multiple levels of African American society first distinguishing slave from free, then among slaves, the field and house slaves. Third, the regional context presented additional dimensions for divergence including North and South distinctions as well as variations caused by western expansion.
African Americans, then, can be characterized by diversity of experiences around a common core of cultural belief and origin. There is evidence that the Africans who came to America had a more coherent cultural system than many believe (Morgan, 1998). For example, Pidgin, a functionally restricted language employed by speakers of different languages usually for trading, emerged among indigenous coastal peoples of Africa. Once established, Pidgin evolved into Creole, which was a unifying language of West coast Africa in Senegambia even before slaves left Africa. According to Morgan (1998) "Africans retained elements of their grammars, phonology, and even parts of their lexicon in the unique languages that they created and bequeathed to their descendants.... Because, therefore, it is inappropriate to speak of the total dismantling of the slaves' indigenous languages, it is equally inappropriate to expect the total destruction of their cultural heritage. In part, at least, the powerless can appropriate a dominant language on their own terms" (p. 580). Sidney Mintz argues the point with respect to the culture-psyche connection in these terms: "The glory of Afro-Americana depended-had to depend-on creativity and innovation more than on the indelibility of particular culture contents" (cited in Morgan, 1998, p. 657).
A cultural psychology must be able to integrate the African cultural origins with the adaptations in the American context. With an emphasis on syncretic processes (merging of two different cultural traditions), and creativity and innovation, African American culture is necessarily context-rich and diverse. Moreover, it is fluid and changeable by virtue of the ongoing mechanisms of adaptation and evolution.
Cultural psychology of African Americans is critically affected by their systematic dehumanization over centuries. One constant in the ever-changing context for African Americans has been the systematic dehumanization and stigmatization they have experienced for centuries. The motivational goal of African American behavior and perception could be described as re-humanization and self-esteem protection and maintenance. The psychological literature is filled with illustrations of the psychology of dehumanization, and contains models of psychic conflict..
Mark of oppression (Kardiner & Ovesy, 1951). The "mark of oppression" analysis argues for the inevitability of degraded sense of self. "The Negro, in contrast to the white, is a more unhappy person; he has a harder environment to live in, the internal stress is greater By "unhappy" we mean he enjoys less, he suffers more. There is not one personality trait of the Negro the source of which cannot be traced to his difficult living conditions. There are no exceptions to this rule. The final result is wretched internal life." (p. 81) However, there is no contemporary empirical evidence that supports this damaged self-esteem hypothesis.
Double Consciousness (DuBois, 1903). The societal systems of racial dehumanization and promises of individual liberty and opportunity created a deep-seated psychic conflict which DuBois (1903) described thus: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on I amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, --an American, a Negro; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." As psyche and culture are intertwined, the duality of this psychic conflict drives the mechanisms of adaptation and coping.
Bifurcation of Self (Jackson-Kalb). When Jesse Jackson ran for the democratic nomination for president in 1984, he had an exchange with Marvin Kalb, then host of NBC's Meet the Press, that symbolizes what I call the bifurcation of self. Like double-consciousness, racial and American identity are pitted against each other in what appears to be a win-lose scenario (Excerpted from Meet the Press, February 13, 1984).
Kalb: The question ...[is]...are you a black man who happens to be an American running for the presidency, or are you an American who happens to be a black man running for the presidency?
Jackson: Well, I'm both an American and a black at one and the same time. I'm both of these...
The legacy of oppression, and the ongoing efforts to find a psychological space in which to feel comfortably human, is an ongoing psychological struggle to be explained by cultural psychology. Culture is multifaceted -- black/white; European/African; good/bad -- and in our cultural psychology analysis, psyche must necessarily be also. The duality pits instrumental goals of well-being against expressive goals of life satisfaction.
Psychological identity mediates the cultural adaptations to dehumanization. Social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978) stipulates the close link between one's psychological well being and his or her identification with a group. If psyche and culture make each other up, how then does the culture of racism, stigma, freedom and opportunity conjoin in psyche? Research suggests it is a tricky union.
Fordham and Ogbu (1985) suggested that it is possible that racism and oppression may be joined with freedom and opportunity such that opposing one (say racism) may cause one to oppose the other (say achievement). Thus doing well in school may in some situation be interpreted as "acting white." Arroyo and Zigler (1995) demonstrated that indeed, retreating from one's racial identification was associated with improved performance in school. However, they also showed that it was associated with lowered mental health status (e.g., depression).
Steele (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1997) has shown that mental representation of the culture of negative racial stereotypes regarding academic performance could lead otherwise prepared and capable Black students to perform poorly. Other research shows that racial identity has been shown to mediate self-esteem, interaction patterns in interracial contexts and utilization of mental health facilities. Measures of racial identity (cf., Taylor & Rogers, 1993; Cross, 1991; Helms, 1990; Baldwin and Bell, 1986) capture the tension caused by processes used to protect and maintain esteem when they conflict with racism and prevailing principles of freedom and equality.
TRIOS represents the critical elements of the cultural psychology of African Americans. TRIOS provides the means by which African Americans employed African cultural origins in their adaptations to the context of slavery and dehumanization. TRIOS provides the degree of flexibility, creativity and innovation that helps one adapt to changing and unpredictable circumstances, and gain control over the conditions and qualities of one's life (cf., Jones, 1999). I argue here that TRIOS provides the mechanisms of coping and adaptation, and have, over time, become the cornerstones of African American Cultural Psychology. I will briefly describe each of the TRIOS dimensions below.
Time. Time is the substrate of life and consciousness (Ornstein, 1977). More importantly, perceptions of time take on values, which dictate behavior and the valuations of human affairs. The valuing of time has been referred to as "temponomics" (McGrath &Kelly, 1988). In temponomic societies, time may be saved, wasted or invested much as any valued resource. When time is not of value in its own right, none of these attributes pertain. Thus time is not simply a reference for the unfolding of behavior, but constitutes a fundamental value that organizes and dictates societal structures, perceptions and beliefs.
There is an expression in Trinidad, West Indies that "any time is Trinidad time" (Jones, 1986). What this means is that time has no independent status or value and therefore does not dictate behavior and choice. Rather, time is a derivative concept, responsive largely to the feelings, desires and behaviors of individuals. Time is controlling in a temponomic society, but not in a non-temponomic one
The psychological story concerns preparation for the future (what we may call future orientation) by conserving capital and not squandering it (what McDougall called Providence). Orienting to the future requires psychological restraint, denial of preferences, and emotional suppression. One of the most conspicuous losses of freedom impelled by slavery was the loss of temporal freedom, and the disconnection of soul and behavior. The psychological liberation from slavery is the liberation from control in all of its aspects. TRIOS offers specific mechanisms of regaining personal control in a society were external control is difficult to come by. Controlling time is, in its essence, psychological liberation.
Rhythm. Rhythm defines a recurring pattern of behavior within specified time frames. Time is necessarily implicated in rhythms. Behaviors occur within temporal units. The regularity of the behaviors and the values of the temporal units (an adagio has broad and an allegro narrow time values) create the rhythmic experience. One may gain control over rhythms by changing the temporal units and adjusting the behavior accordingly.
Racism often introduces asynchronies or disharmonious connections between internal and external states. Gaining behavioral control over the environment may require adapting rhythmic control either through accommodation (adjusting the internal aspects) or assimilation (adjusting the external aspects). At its core, rhythm is an ecological variable conceived in a transactional framework with psychological properties and consequences. Following on the Gibsonian model of perception (Gibson, 1979; McArthur & Baron, 1983), environmental affordances merge with psychological attunements to create the rhythmic behavioral act. These acts are significantly affected by the cultural context in which they occur, and the personality characteristics of the acting parties.
Improvisation. Improvisation is "...a combination of expressiveness and invention, or creativity, which occurs under time pressure (Jones, 1997, p. 488). Again, we find freedom at the core. Improvisation is inherently free by virtue of its spontaneity. But it is not random and it is not haphazard. Improvisation is inherently "problem-focused." That is, we are inventing or creating toward a purpose. Improvisation takes an underlying foundation, say grammar or musical structure, then, under the constraints of time (a rhythmic order) configures a text or specific scale to make some coherent statement that expresses a point. Because the improvisation is done "on-line" it is unique and bears the signature of the author. This improvisation is necessarily a fusion of the author and performer in the same person. Characteristic patterns of time-based problem solving are expressive and can rise to the level of a "self-signature" we may call style.
Oral Expression. Orature (vocality, drumming, storytelling, praise singing and naming) is what Asante (1987) calls the sum total of the oral tradition. Orature captures human creation and life itself. The crucial aspect of Orature is its immediacy. Orature means that all meaningful behavior, values and beliefs are defined by context. It becomes important, then, to share in experience in order to understand it. Experience cannot be abstracted, out of context, in a meaningful way. Morality, even value, is bound up in context.
Another consequence of the context-rich nature of Orature is that it allows for creative freedom in the expression and decoding of the meaning of things. Cole, Gay, Glick and Sharp (1971) found that the Kpelle of Liberia were reliably poorer than Americans at memorizing lists of words. This was true even when the researchers tried to encourage categorization as a mnemonic device. However, when the 20-items to be recalled were embedded in a folk story, the Kpelle subjects not only remembered them all, but in the order in which they appeared in the story. Context gave the words meaning that they did not have independently.
In African American culture, language is also used as an avenue of control through privileged meanings and neologisms. "Bad" becomes "good, "cool" defines an essence of spirit and self, a preference a taste, 'dope' becomes 'bad' which we know is good. "Stupid" is not dumb but smart. The use of language in slavery times required neologisms and privileged uses to hide collective action from slave owners and overseers. Over centuries it has become one of the most stable means of asserting self-control in a potentially hostile or at best indifferent context. Rap is a contemporary extension of this evolutionary process. Rap is more than a style of singing and rhyming. It is an expression of reality and assertion for self that is not filtered through powerbrokers of the mainstream (George, 1998). It creates its own authenticity for those who are "down with it." These mechanisms of self-control and personal freedom have the capacity to bond individuals together in concerted reality, and also distance oneself and one's group from others who are potentially harmful.
Spirituality. Finally, spirituality can be defined as the belief in nonmaterial causation in human affairs (Jones, 1986). That is, what happens to us is determined in some measure by forces or energies that are beyond our control. Those forces are not haphazard but are part of a system of meaning and energy that determines human events. According to Jahn (1961) the basic force is Ntu, and influences human beings (muntu), all things (kintu), all places and all time (hantu), and modalities of existence (kuntu). A person who is spiritual shares cause-effect agency with ntu, and does not claim it all for him or herself.
In U.S. society, control is a defining property of wellbeing. In McDougall's (1921) description of the races of Europe, "will" and "introversion" were positive properties, and "extraversion" and "gregariousness" were negative. Self-Actualization implies that the pinnacle of selfhood can be achieved through personal agency. Those who fail to accomplish this actualized state may be thought of as "pawns" rather than "origins" (DuCharms, 1966), or external as opposed to internal in their locus of control (Rotter 1966), or field dependent rather than field independent (Witkin et al, 1962). Moreover, research shows that having control can confer better physical health among nursing home patients (Langer & Rodin, 1976), or that the illusion of control can cause people to overvalue things over which such control is exerted like playing bingo cards (Langer 1983).
Spirituality liberates one from the expectation of personal responsibility in a world that denies the full range of options and opportunities. Thus one can also claim spirituality among the mechanisms that liberate one from the dominance of cultural expectations and constraints. Whether this shared responsibility is seen as a kind of self-handicapping, or a legitimate cultural belief, it is one of the important elements of the psychological evolution of persons of African descent.
TRIOS describes psychological processes and tendencies that provide an "experience-near" template of cultural difference. The mechanisms of TRIOS provide psychological control and affirm the self as well as the collective in a societal context that devalues them both. The challenge of racism for its targets is the creation and preservation of a positive self and an instrumental identity. The historical evolution of African American culture has resulted in large part from the coping-adaptation sequences that derive both from African origins (evolutionary) and challenges of racism in the American context (reactionary). As a result, the psychology of African Americans is heavily context dependent. The psychological manifestations of TRIOS also serve to strengthen the bond within the group and protecting group members from assaults. The cultural psychology of African Americans promises to be an interesting and important study that will expand our understanding of the range of human psychological capacity.
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