Offense intended?

Or not?

Behaviorisms of all varieties agree on one thing, that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of  two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out”, all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes.

Even the dimmest pigeon will soon learn to peck only on the green light.

Now we give the bird a test. Occasionally, instead of red or green, the light is yellow. What will the pigeon do? Well, at first he will peck the yellow key, because yellow is close to green on the spectrum: green and yellow are similar. This is called stimulus generalization.

But in our test, pecking yellow doesn’t give food but another timeout. Since the pigeon can in fact tell the difference between green  and yellow, even though they are similar, it takes but few repetitions for him to learn not to peck yellow. This is called discrimination.

Human beings also behave like this. Here is an example.

Many years ago, distinguished black scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin took offense. The incident occurred in Washington’s Cosmos Club:

In 1995, on the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Franklin hosted a celebratory dinner party for some of his friends at the Cosmos Club. Some of his guests had not arrived, and Franklin decided to head to the entrance of the Club to look for them. There, an elderly white woman handed Franklin her coat check and demanded that he fetch her coat. Franklin politely informed her that all the Club’s attendants were uniformed and if she handed one of them her coat check, they would be happy to assist her. In a talk he gave ten years later, Franklin recounted this event as an example of how racist stereotypes and ideologies about the social position of Blacks remained strongly entrenched in American society. [emphasis added]

Was Dr. Franklin right to be offended? Should the white lady have known better?

In fact, both parties were probably just behaving like our pigeon.  In the WL’s experience, coat attendants in Washington were almost always black (perhaps the attendant to whom she handed her coat originally was black) — the green key. Members of the Cosmos Club, on the contrary, were always white — Franklin was the club’s first black member. Hence her mistake. She had no experience with the yellow key, a black person at the club who was not a servant.

Dr. Franklin had experienced many racist insults in his life, all from white people. Like the pigeon, he had much experience with the red key. Hence his inference that this was just another insult and he reacted as if insulted.

Both individuals made mistakes. But in both cases, the mistakes were a predictable result of their past histories. Who should apologize?  Not Franklin, who was perfectly civil at the time. The lady? Well, yes, she should have apologized, since she did make a mistake. But neither party need feel offended since her error is understandable.

This incident has become an influential story of racism in the American South. It is taken as a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, even though many stereotypes are true: men are usually stronger than women and have deeper voices, for example. A stereotype doesn’t have to be true one hundred percent of the time to be useful. And people form stereotypes automatically.  Horse nettle fruit look like tomatoes, but they are poisonous. A hungry child familiar with tomatoes might well eat the look-alike nettle fruit and get sick. People, like pigeons, generalize based on their past experience.

How should the Cosmos Club incident be regarded now? Dr. Franklin’s original reaction is totally understandable. But emotion is not always a reliable guide to truth. Being upset does not mean you should be upset.  The real facts may be different from what your instincts assume. Dr. Franklin, unlike the hapless pigeon, had the power to reflect on possibly non-racist causes of the WL’s behavior.

It is unfortunate that, ten years after the event, Dr. Franklin used this ambiguous incident as a kind of prototype for racism. His history excuses him. Nevertheless, he could have looked at alternative interpretations, as I have done, or chosen a less ambiguous example. As it is, he provided race-baiters with a stick to beat up many probably innocent people caught up in similar incidents.

The message, for both black and white: please think before you take offense or might give it.

A version of this post appear on the Psychology Today blog. 

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