Blog #3: Environmental influence on self-perceptions

I was raised in a Jewish household and attended a Jewish day school during my elementary school years. I learned to appreciate Jewish teachings and culture. In fact, the constant advocacy for further education that I experienced throughout my childhood likely influenced my decision to attend graduate school.

However, those lessons are not the focus of this post. This week I had the provocative experience of speaking with a Jewish person who continually perpetuated stereotypes and views of Jews that are recognized as antisemitic. He made sweeping assumptions and generalizations that were often condescending as well as factually incorrect. He also continually tokenized himself as others might tokenize their “Black friend” to push an agenda, perpetuating a practice known to be harmful – albeit ironically so.

Having this experience reminded me of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s influential study that tested Black children’s self-perceptions. The researchers presented Black children with both dolls that were Black and dolls that were White. They allowed the children to choose which doll to play with and asked them to identify which dolls were “nice,” for example. The children overwhelmingly chose the White dolls over the Black and labeled them with the better descriptors, while also selecting the Black dolls as being more like them. This study illustrated the detrimental impact of the media and society’s negatively biased portrayal of Black members of the population on children’s self-perceptions, as well as how early their views were influenced.

Growing up in a supportive Jewish community, I had never connected the lessons from the Clarks’ study to a minority group with which I myself identity. This experience served as a reminder that other people grew up in environments extremely different than mine and how much those differences can shape a person’s view of the world. As a psychologist, I constantly incorporate individual differences into my studies, but at some point doing so becomes habitual rather than intentional. While I was saddened by the impact that this person’s environment had on him, I needed the jarring reminder that the work done by psychologists has practical, concrete applications and deals with real people, real consequences, and unseen, deep-seated differences.

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