The Power of Representation vs. The Power of Influence

Review of The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Gould

My Initial Thoughts

Before beginning this paper, I had trouble making sense of my thoughts and emotions in response to the book, The Mismeasure of Man(Gould, 1996).  I felt inadequate, and to be forthright, I felt stupid. My initial thought was, “why am I now finding out about this?” All my years of education flashed across my eyes, and in a single moment, everything I knew about how I functioned and co-existed in the world appeared to be controlled by the social forces and influencers around me. I began to contemplate all the areas in my life that could have been influenced by micro-aggression, an unwanted assumption, or prejudice. 

I wondered how many other African American people were aware of this form of racism and how they made sense of their experience of being black. My feelings of inadequacy subsided, but more so than ever… I felt small. It reminded me of the first time I recognized that my race was going to be the initial premise of almost every relationship I would form. It reminded me why education was a predominant factor in my home and my African culture. It reminded me of the copious moments in my life when my mother would remind me that she could not afford for me to go to college, so I needed to get a scholarship. It reminded me of the pit in my stomach that would churn when affirmative action, NCAA, or “special treatment” discussions were brought up for African Americans. It reminded me of the moment I was accepted into doctoral school. 

Stephen Jay Gould (1996), the author of The Mismeasure of Man, criticizes the idea of biological determinism. The idea that society and everything that it is made up of (race, class, gender) is an accurate representation of biology. There are critics out there who think Gould’s (1996) idea is entirely irrational. Why do I feel as if his ideas are valid? Is this because I feel threatened, or live as the victim?

On the other hand, why do I feel as if I cannot agree with his idea because it would undermine a large portion of my identity? It is also difficult to fathom that there are people who intentionally want to demean and reduce my race to the lowest possible way. Some people subconsciously do not realize the power of their prejudice or the power of their influence. 

The moment of affect, it changes you from being who you think you are to being whom the world sees you as. In that exact moment, you live in a world that reminds you of how “others” perceive you, instead of how you perceive yourself — the power of representation, the power of influence. I could also say, the power of a mind. 

My Stance

This reflection will focus on one of Gould’s (1996) identified themes, objectivity, and subjectivity vs. impartiality in science and build upon its inherent power of social representation. The issues surrounding the social representation of African American people stretch back to evolution, intelligence tests, and slavery. These intangible power forces have built a horrendous nature of prejudice and implicit bias, specifically in the United States. This reflection will intertwine personal stories and will include my inner thoughts about being African American in a white American country. I will attempt to include possible solutions and theories as to how social prejudice can be discussed within the psychological field, starting with our researchers.  

The Controversy

What if Gould (1996) wrote the book to increase the clout surrounding racism? He deliberately explains that people will get frustrated with his hypothesis and will try to find several ways to criticize his work. They aim to disprove that all of intelligence testing is not merely to build an order and divide people based on appearance. By attempting to debunk the ideas of his current and past researchers, he inherently forced people to talk about the idea. The critics would have to consider why they were so interested in disproving this phenomenon. Which is why this research is so substantial, does measuring intelligence, represent measuring the level of scientific racism? To believe that certain groups of people have innate inferiority based on their race. Based on this inherent inferiority, researchers can determine or suggest the probability of success/failure, depending on the race of a person. Does that put the power in the hands of the researchers or the hands of the race? 

Gould’s (1996) research was published in 1981, and he analyzed over a century worth of scientific research pointing back to intelligence. For instance, Morton’s craniotomy research determined that white skulls were larger than black, Native American, and desiccated Egyptian skulls. Which lead him to the conclusion that whites were the dominant and superior race. Gould (1996) also discussed Broca’s focus on craniometry and his linkage between brain size and intelligence. In Broca’s case, Gould determined that he was practicing and conducting research unethically. He believes that Broca’s preconceived beliefs and assumptions clouded his ability to assess the data without subjective interpretation (1996). A more modern consideration is Gould’s analysis of Murray and his use of intelligence tests. Murray supported the idea that the intelligence gap between black Americans and white Americans was due to biological inheritance, instead of institutionalized racism and the dejected effects of poverty (1996). Considering the question above— the power appears to be in the hands of the researcher. 

What I find interesting is that as research developed, the idea of intelligence testing became research focused on race-testing. Race-based testing, if practiced with unwarranted assumptions and unchecked biases, simply reinforce the power of racial representation and racist results. 

America’s racial classification system is based solely on societal and cultural ideologies. Which is derived from the misfortunate legacy of racial distinction or in short — the purity of a person’s blood. These researchers represented African American people as inferior based on biological determinism. The use of bell curves, intelligence testing, and biased interpretation gave rise to the power of social representation. The researchers reassured and affirmed prejudice and perpetuated a system of white stature and white dominance. The way African American people were represented manifested several political and economic stereotypes of biological inadequacies. There must have been something genetically wrong with this particular group because of their race. White Americans have ingrained this belief system into the American people, the American researchers, American politics, the American economy, and have stretched it over several years. What makes this even more compelling is the adverse effects of this representation system. It has inherently reduced an entire race to feel nothing but less than in all aspects of their life. 

Gould (1996) did not find issues in the use of testing intelligence. He found fault in the way white researchers measured intelligence. These researchers may have been confusing evolutionary advantages with social advantages.  

Representation

Representation has the power to shape how we perceive the world.  When I consider the idea of representation, I move towards the concept of identity. In the past few years, discovering your ancestry and getting back to our roots has been a big deal. More and more people are excited to get to know their lineage and understand what components make up their identity. For me, I never thought it was a big deal. I did not understand the importance of knowing your lineage. It was not until my older sisters went to Ghana for a family trip that I realized the lack of cultural (Ghanaian) representation in my life. Being so far removed from my family in Ghana made it difficult for me to feel comfortable getting to know them. I decided not to join my sisters on the trip, but we would occasionally video chat. During each call, they would talk about how much calmer and at peace, they were while in Ghana. My eldest sister described to me what it was like to be surrounded by people who made her feel safe and accepted [she recently moved to Texas and has had a rough transition, as there are not many African people near her]. It finally clicked as to why being in Ghana was a special experience not only for her but for several people in my family. To them, Ghana is a representation of happiness, love, joy, comradery, and a new sense of belonging. I would often grabble over this idea, if I am unfamiliar with my culture, and my immediate family does not represent the image of what it is like to be a part of the Ghanaian culture, what would make it appealing? Would I have the same experience my sisters had if I went to Ghana? What exactly is my cultural identity? Do I have a responsibility to build these connections, despite the apparent misrepresentation of the culture?

This example is a close connection to the power of representation. My mother moved to America when she was about 18 years old. She left Ghana on her own and met my father when she arrived in the states. After she gave birth to my sisters, she sent them back to Ghana to live with my grandmother. My siblings lived in Ghana for the majority of the initial developmental stages. Once my mother felt stable enough to support them in America financially, she brought them back. They were removed and stripped of their known identity and were required to assimilate and adjust to American culture. Just as my mother did. For my family to make sense of the adjustments, they had to represent Ghanaian culture in as many ways as they could. Over time, the lack of social representation and the misfortunate representation of black culture reduced our image and identity to small disjointed, fragmented pieces. By this time, my younger brother and I came around during a period of my mother’s life where social status and attainment were critical. I lived in a predominantly white American neighborhood, and the majority of my friends were white American. This was the life I felt comfortable and safe in — removed from my Ghanaian culture and embarrassed by race. My mother would belittle black American people and would remind me to not associate with them. To her, they were criminals, unkept, disrespectful, and it would be a disgrace to be considered black. At this time, I doubt she realized her power or influence on me and my siblings. 

Did I consider my culture to be white? Was this because of how white culture was represented and stapled across all platforms? I had been so immersed in white culture that I reduced my race and Ghanaian culture to minuscule factors of my being. My identity was conflated, and it was challenging to make sense of. The power of representation is almost the same as the power of race. However, race poses a paradox; race is a socially constructed phenomenon that has gained biological legitimacy. Representation is powerful because it determines the reality I live in. 

Representation: A Far-Removed Example 

For a few weeks now, I have been contemplating these questions: Is there a lack of counseling articles that represent research conducted by African Americans or minorities? As an African American woman, is it important that I research African and black American people? My dissertation has led me to a place that I never thought I would be, and that place is exploring the black culture and its influence on its future and current legacies. Until I spoke to a colleague about this topic, I was sure I would be exploring several cultures and a variety of races. She said, “what is the big deal?” “White researchers always research white people.” I laughed and realized that she was right. The articles and books I read all represent the dominance of white culture. I say dominance because when someone holds power to influence the way a system will run, they will likely dominate any social hierarchy. 

I understand that there is a need for psychology to be grounded and based on diversity, social justice, and cultural competency. Specifically, for enhancing the research areas of problem-solving, collectivism, creativity, cultural mannerisms, and oppression. However, to some capacity, I felt as if it was all up to me. Why do I have to represent an entire group of people based on my race and educational stature? I felt as if I did not get a chance to choose whether to stay in my comfort or to represent an intangible structure such a race.  I came to this perspective after much contemplation: psychologists work to capture the breadth of human behaviors, experiences, and suffering. To be beneficial, we must be able to capture the true nature of humanity to say that we understand cultural constructs and individual phenomena faithfully. I am pleased and proud of my decision. 

An Obvious Solution?

My transition to focus mainly on African American women and their connection to legacy formation speaks towards the nation’s current and past political climate. Our field’s political influence is underwritten in how the world views our approach to humanity. African American people are not represented as a significant force within the sciences. The lack of representation continues to perpetuate this miscreation of black culture, black intelligence, and black people. Relating to Gould (1996), all of the researchers he analyzed likely had something to gain within the political stature of life. Their intentions and use of representation were built upon a history of deceit and manipulation. 

I find it hard to believe that the backbone of the psychological field is derived in this form of research…research that may or may not have been based on unwarranted assumptions. It appears as though; research is tiptoeing on the borderline of fact and opinion. And, that’s just that, we have a lot more to be concerned about.  If we want to show that our profession is invested in the scientific research of human cognition and behavior in any realm, it is not enough to simply state that people are varied and come from different backgrounds. We must qualitatively choose to study diverse perspectives and adapt our approaches to enhance and celebrate the value of human diversity. How do we start at the beginning after we have been wronged for so long? Is it possible to create a new reality of African Americans?  

This concept is where I derived my postulations about the importance of legacies. Based on Gould’s (1996) research African Americans have been told what their intellectual legacy will be. There are severe and concerning the effects of how this unwarranted assumption has been represented.  As an African American researcher, I can begin to focus on how my research is representing certain groups and how my preconceived notions may cloud my judgment. I also believe African American people require a great deal of love and comfort before we can begin to build “equality.” Much damage has been done, and the effects of it are everlasting. 

Introspectively, I find it interesting that from the professors who will foster my growth and learning in the field of psychology, the majority of them are white Americans. From this fact, students will inevitably leave programs with similar perspectives and beliefs as the professors they are learning from. I am the only African American student in a cohort of twelve. The class above me holds two African American students. The class above theirs holds one African American student, and the class proceeding this held none. Getting back to representation, how influential or substantial is my voice and perspective as a minority? What would it be like to represent minorities in a way that capitalizes on their intellect? For example, a minority professor.  Are universities choosing to include minorities into their tenure staff? Are these professionals considered in research domains that promote understanding in cultural and diverse standpoints? Are minorities applying to psychology programs, and if so, how many meet the standards/ expectations of staff who are not like them? 

I am grateful that the field of psychology has placed precedence on social justice and cultural competency. However, our research approach, in my perspective, is flawed in the sense that the majority of psychology professionals are made up of white Americans.  It would be helpful to have a diverse research staff (race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, spirituality, disability) in the majority of psychology domains. We must also consider the areas we are researching and the people we are researching as well. Variability is valuable and essential.

With Intention.

Resources

Gould, S. J (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.