Racism in the US was explained in this paper using Mead’s theory of the generalized other and Simmel’s concept of the stranger. Mead’s theory indicated that marginalized communities often adopt the ideals of dominant groups in society to get acceptance. This makes the minority disenchanted since they have to acquire a new identity and an alienated self. As a result, racism increases in society. Simmel’s theory indicated that individuals are often considered strangers if they are significantly different from the dominant group in their community. Socio-cultural differences can lead to racism if strangers are not accepted in the community.
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In this paper, I argue that racism is a social construct that develops through socialization and interactions among individuals in society. The relationship between African Americans and whites in the US will be used as an example to demonstrate that racism is perpetuated by individuals through their actions and interactions. Mead’s theory of the generalized other indicates that African Americans internalize western ideals and culture through interactions. This reinforces negative attitudes towards them. Simmel’s theory of the stranger, on the other hand, demonstrates that African Americans are alienated from the white community because they are viewed as strangers.
In the concept of the generalized other, the behavior is influenced by the attitudes of members of a community towards individuals from different socio-cultural backgrounds. Self-consciousness develops when people view themselves from the perspective of the generalized other (Mead 2012: 423-439). Language leads to the development of the self by allowing people to interact through symbols, gestures, and words. Role-play allows individuals to internalize the perspectives of others, which in turn leads to the attainment of self-consciousness. Games enable people to understand and respect the rules of interaction. This leads to the development of the self.
The concept of the generalized other means dealing with the attitudes and perceptions of the dominant group in the society concerning the self (Mead 2012: 423-439). In the US, whites are the dominant group. African Americans internalize the conflicting ideals of the white community through assimilation. This leads to the development of identity and understanding of the self through role-play among African Americans. By behaving like whites (generalized others), African Americans estrange themselves from society.
The alien western self emerges as African Americans interact with whites, thereby adopting new values, behaviors, and attitudes. Blacks who embrace western fantasies during role-play are likely to perceive themselves as a stigmatized or marginalized community. As a result, they are likely to develop negative attitudes towards their identity, thereby becoming more alienated. This leads to increased racism in the US. For instance, African Americans who internalize the belief that they are inferior are likely to develop low self-esteem, which in turn reinforces the negative attitudes of whites towards them.
Mead’s concept of the me and I explain the development of identity during interactions. The me refers to the learned behaviors and attitudes of the society towards an individual (Mead 2012: 423-439). For instance, whites view African Americans as a community that consists of narrow-minded, violent, and poor individuals. Blacks, on the other hand, believe that whites are cowboys, gamblers, and biased. The I enables individuals to respond to the aforementioned negative racial stereotypes. For instance, African Americans have been able to acquire wealth and respect through hard work. As a result, they have acquired a new identity, which is different from the one (the me) imposed on them by society.
The concept of the stranger encompasses two contradictory ideas, namely, nearness and remoteness (Simmel 2012: 448-451). A stranger is viewed as a person who is both far and near to a given community. Nearness means that a stranger stays close to or lives with members of a community. In addition, he or she is connected to the community through general social characteristics such as nationality. Remoteness refers to the fact that a stranger is mentally far away from the community. Specifically, a stranger is at a different social level since he or she does not share the ideals, perspectives, or values of the locals. Simmel’s theory also shows that a stranger stays for a long time or permanently in his or her new community.
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African Americans can be viewed as strangers in the US since they are immigrants from Africa. They are close to whites since they live and work together in various cities and states. African Americans have only a loose association with whites due to the fact that they are also citizens of the US. However, African Americans have their own ideals, values, culture, and beliefs that make them distinct. As a result, they are always viewed as strangers. This leads to alienation of African Americans in their own country. Blacks are strangers who have stayed for a long time since their citizenship has enabled them to become permanent residents of the US.
Despite being alienated, a stranger plays an important role in the society (Simmel 2012: 448-451). Interactions with a stranger influence the society through new ideas. Moreover, a stranger can be depended on as a confidant since he or she is expected to be objective rather than judgmental. For instance, African Americans have shaped the US culture in terms of sports and art. The beliefs and ideals of African Americans that are strange to whites reinforce racism. However, social and cultural differences can also alleviate racism by promoting tolerance as people interact in their neighborhood and workplaces.
Assessment of Mead’s Theory
The main strength of Mead’s concept of the generalized other is that it clearly articulates the role of interaction in the creation of subjectivity. People from different races are not likely to know each other if they do not use a particular language to express their opinions, desires, and attitudes (Longhofer and Winchester 2012: 1-7). In this context, racism would not be a problem. Role-play enables people to internalize new ideas. As a result, they develop aspirations that motivate them to acquire new identities (Mead 2012: 423-439). For example, African Americans are motivated to behave like whites to avoid stigmatization.
The concept of the me and I is important because it explains the role of assimilation in the fight against racism. In the post-colonial US, African Americans adopted behaviors and values that were acceptable and preferred by whites. This strategy was expected to help African Americans to access the opportunities and privileges that were available to other races. This means that the me as an aspect of the self enabled African Americans to acquire an acceptable identity, which allowed them to avoid discrimination.
One of the weaknesses of Mead’s theory is that it only focused on the role of the generalized other. The theory ignored the role of the significant other in self and identity development. Undoubtedly, African Americans have been able to achieve high self-esteem despite the social problems that they face. The love and care that African Americans receive from their children and parents (significant others) enable them to develop a positive sense of their identity (Mead 2012: 423-439). The theory also fails to account for the factors that lead to domination in various societies. For instance, the theory cannot explain the reasons behind the domination of racial minorities in the US.
Assessment of Simmel’s Theory
One of the strengths of Simmel’s theory is that the concept of nearness and remoteness explain how perceived differences influence interactions and development of subjectivity in the society (Simmel 2012: 448-451). Individuals often share only a few characteristics with a stranger. This limits the level of interaction with strangers in the society. By contrast, organic association or connection normally exists among individuals who share several characteristics. This explains the division of the US society on racial basis. Whites are more organically connected with their race than other races because they share several specific characteristics such as color, language, and education. This leads to exclusion of other races in interactions, socialization, and economic activities that involve whites.
Another strength of the theory is that it explains the role of non-members of a community in shaping the self and identity (Simmel 2012: 448-451). Undoubtedly, interactions that involve strangers can influence the identity of the dominant and minority groups in a community. For instance, whites have greatly influenced the values of African Americans. Similarly, they have adopted several ideals and elements of the African American culture.
The weakness of the theory is that a stranger is not always objective. A stranger is likely to be subjective or judgmental if his or her values are not in synch with those of the locals (Simmel 2012: 448-451). For instance, African Americans are not likely to be objective since their past experiences have made them believe that whites are unfair. Another weakness of the theory is that being labeled a stranger might not necessarily lead to disenchantment. For instance, African Americans no longer experience overt racial discrimination in public places despite the fact that they are still considered strangers in the US.
Mead’s theory provides a better explanation of racism than Simmel’s concept of the stranger. This perspective is based on the fact that the negative aspects of racism such as discrimination are based on biased attitudes that individuals have towards people who belong to other races. A person is likely to be disenchanted if the community believes that he or she comes from an inferior race.
Racism is a social construct that emerges when socialization and interaction in the community lead to development of subjective or biased attitudes towards members of specific races. Mead’s theory of the generalized other indicates that minority groups often internalize the ideals of dominant groups in the society to attain acceptable identity.
This helps the minority to avoid the challenges associated with social issues such as racism. Simmel’s theory, on the other hand, indicates that individuals with social, cultural, or economic characteristics that are significantly different from those of the dominant group in their community are likely to be considered strangers. As a result, they are likely to encounter racism.
Longhofer, Wesley and Daniel Winchester, eds. 2012. Social Theory Rewired: New Connections to Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Mead, George. 2012. “The Self.” Pp. 423-448 in Wesley Longhofer and Daniel Winchester, eds., Social Theory Rewired: New Connections to Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Simmel, Georg. 2012. “The Stranger.” Pp. 448-451 in Wesley Longhofer and Daniel Winchester, eds., Social Theory Rewired: New Connections to Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge.