The Impact of “Positive” Stereotyping on White Social Identity Motivation

As you watch this video, notice that every player featured in this top ten dunks of all time video is black.

(Now, before I make anymore statements I have to disclaim that this is in no way, shape, or form, anything close to a “reverse racism” blog.) In fact, according to the 2005 census, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, the professional representations of the two more athletically focused of the “big three” American sports (the third being baseball), were made up of 76% black players and 67% black players respectively.

From a logistic standpoint, this surge of black representation within American professional athletics is extremely important for the black community within America. On an individual level it has brought fame and fortune to black athletes who, in a white dominated American society, may never have dreamed of being allowed (by the white majority) to reach the heights they had reached. On a societal level, it has brought to the black community nationally visible reputation as a physically superior group of people. This notion is backed by a study conducted by Stone, Perry, and Darley (1997) on perceptions of both black and white basketball players, it was found that participants felt that black men were superior athletes and basketball players, while successful white players were successful because of their intelligence and “scrappiness.”

Underlying the logistic advantages to the black community’s reputation of physical or athletic superiority is, however, the less-than-advantageous stereotyping of black individuals, and the black community as a group of people who are presupposed to be superior physical athletes. Although these stereotypes are not negative in their content, they certainly do not have positive implications on the status of the black community.

It is important to mention that on an individual level, any stereotype, “positive” or “negative,” puts shackles on the person who the stereotype affects. A person affected by a stereotype has to fight to be perceived as anything but what the stereotype dictates.

On a macro level, there seem to be serious consequences of a minority group’s being positively stereotyped as superior in anyway to the majority group. In his article on social identity theory, Michael A. Hogg asserts that one motivation for the creation of separate social identities between groups of people is self-enhancement. This self-enhancement can manifest itself as self-enhancement not just of the individual, but of entire social identity groups.

Self-enhancement motivation involves distinguishing one’s own group as somehow better, or more valuable than the other group. As one group gain’s widespread fame for a quality that they possess, the other group’s drive to be recognized as better than the opposite group is interfered with. In this situation as the black community gains widespread fame and a reputation of physical dominance over the white community, and the white community’s drive to feel that they are superior to the black community is interfered with.

In retaliation to this interference, it is logical to think that the white community takes action to remedy of feeling of inferiority. According to social identity theory, the method that the white community would use to remedy this feeling would be to further separate themselves from the black community as a social identity group. Thus, as the black community becomes more successful, instead of gaining the respect of the white community at large, the black community may be becoming more and more separated from the white community.

This is dilemma is quite troubling. The black minority in America seems to be stuck, even when it finds success. While the white community often points to hard work and self-improvement, asking the black community to help itself, it then may be motivated, by the success caused by the black community’s hard work, to isolate itself in order to feel superior. It is impossible to ask a group of people to deliberately become unsuccessful, and if social identity theory is accurate, it would seem that this reaction of the white community is natural and inherent. How, then, do we solves this problem? Is education enough to change inherent reactions? I’d love to know your thoughts, even if you think this issue does not exist.