Address takes on 'ethnic clumping'

by Vivian Chung | 11/11/03 6:00am

You might sense it at a dining hall table, in a club's membership, or in the group of friends gathered on the other side of the Green.

"Ethnic clumping," the tendency to group persons with shared characteristics in fixed categories, was the subject of a keynote address given by psychology professor Jennifer Richeson at yesterday's Pan Asian Council community dinner.

The address, entitled "Why should I say 'Hi' to you?" tackled these issues from the perspectives of both the "perceivers" and the "participants." An audience of approximately 150 students came out to listen.

Richeson spoke about the inaccuracy of generalizations, saying that there are basic categories such as age, sex and race which are often "activated automatically."

According to Richeson, people can't help this behavior, because they usually categorize others at first glance. Richeson said categorization of this sort provides a way to "process information quickly."

She gave an example of how people act when they see an elderly woman who is the "grandma type." Automatically, people believe they understand how to interact with people in that group.Categorization is not necessarily bad, Richeson said, but it does at times lead to stereotyping.

Richeson gave an example of how people can often mis-categorize.

She showed the audience photos of three different men. The first photo was of a man with African origins while the next two men were of Middle Eastern origin.

While most people would have categorized the men based on race, it turned out that the first two men were suspected of links to terrorism.

Categorization also "yields category accentuation," Richeson said. People often tend to overemphasize differences between, and similarities within, various groups.

Richeson spoke about existing social identity theories, which propose a "fundamental human need to belong." They also suggest that humans need to "maintain a positive and distinct social identity."

She also argued that the need for a distinct social identity is complemented by an separate need to exert individuality. These two needs are often in conflict.

Richeson said that self-stereotyping, which occurs when someone thinks that they are a typical member of a group and applies stereotypes to oneself, is also common. She also said group members could apply negative stereotypes to themselves.

Richeson showed the results of her studies on ethnic clumping on different college campuses. Her findings showed that participants often feel that they want to have contact with others of different races but are too afraid of rejection, and thus will not initiate contact.At the same time, the participants also think that other people are not interested in initiating contact with them.

Richeson compared this common occurrence to the dating scenario. Most people are afraid of being rejected so they will not make the first move. They also tend to think the other person must not be interested if they don't make the first move.

Richeson urged the audience and the community to participate in Mix It Up for Lunch Day on November the 18th.

Jennifer Richeson received her Sc. B in Psychology from Brown University in 1994 and a Ph.D in Social Psychology from Harvard University in 2000.

The keynote address was followed by a community dinner discussion. The event received funding from COSO and the Office of Asian and Asian American Students.