Behavior Versus Identity

Last Sunday, I was a guest in an adult class at St. Luke’s United Methodist church.  The class wanted to discuss the recent, disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. (St. Luke’s is one of the local churches in my “good guys–actual Christians” column.)

The format was informal–Q and A– but I did begin by suggesting that, before embarking on discussion, it was important to distinguish between hatred and ignorance.

As I explained, when I was young, growing up in one of only 30 Jewish families in Anderson, Indiana, most of what I encountered was ignorance:  I was asked things like “Do Jews have tails?”  and “Do Jews live in houses like real people?” But there was also animus: in third grade, a playmate informed me that “My parents said I can’t play with you because you’re a dirty Jew.”

It’s also important to distinguish between criticisms of Israeli actions/politics and anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel’s government or policies is not anti-Semitic (plenty of American Jews are appalled by Netanyahu). That said, criticisms of Israel grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish tropes are anti-Semitic.

In the United States, citizens are supposed to be judged on our behavior, not our identities. Today’s polarization is to a great extent a fight between Americans who want their countrymen to live up to that principle and those who defend negative stereotypes based on religion, sexual orientation and skin color.

Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews because we’re Jews.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from ignorance–the relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows.” Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. Most people aren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes, and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode once there was greater familiarity and more contact.

Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held–albeit inaccurate and unfair– social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.

But there was, he found, another category. It was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education and contact would have no effect at all on their attitudes.

Allport recognized that we all have a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility, and that desire makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable. He also recognized that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport put it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”

In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone or something we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”

Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one?  Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has a degree of permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable from others who live in Lexington.

Jews, blacks and gays, however (along with women) have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, we’ll all continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.

Undoubtedly, there will always be emotionally-unhealthy people who need someone or something to blame for the disappointments in their lives. My conversation with the lovely folks at church last Sunday reminded me that there are also a lot of good people “out there.”

At times like this, that’s comforting to know.


  1. Of course, the irony is that the same Christians will say, “hate the sin, love the sinner” — judge people by their actions rather than their identities. But if their understanding of a group includes misconceptions about the actions that almost all members of the group routinely engage in — Blacks demand money for not working, Jews use dishonest business practices to steal money, queer folks recruit children to become queer, etc — then they get to have their hate and eat it too.

  2. Please stop calling gay people QUEER. That is a hate word to many. If you do not use the N word, why call people QUEER. It is hateful. In vogue right now but hateful.

  3. patmcc; it was the Gay Pride people who added that “Q” to LGBTQ label.

    There is an old adage; “Everybody needs a dog to kick.” Meaning someone to look down on to feel superior about one’s self.

    Once I began watching and listening to the racism, bigotry and antisemitism in my own home and my neighborhood, I also began questioning. Somewhere in my young adulthood I reached the conclusion that, what was later the Archie Bunker view of Jews, was their strong religious ties. I knew nothing about the religion and still know virtually nothing but did begin recognizing they honored their women, there were strong family ties (maybe because of being a minority as Sheila was), education was expected of their children and successful jobs as adults. So; where is the problem? There are different denominations of Jews but the number of different “Christians” is countless and some are illegal and sex, or lack of it, is predominate in their beliefs.

    With all of its racism, bigotry and antisemitism, my generation grew up being told that police were our protectors and our friends and could always be trusted when we needed help. “Behavior Versus Identity” regarding police, now comprised of recognized groups of races, religions and gender identities, are to be feared and not to be trusted. My personal view based on personal contacts now has me questioning even police officers who were friends.

  4. Sorry I missed the class you visited with at St. Luke’s where I claim my Christian identity. The members who regularly attend that class entertains and gives hospitality to open thinking and conversation regarding current trends in church and society. St.Luke’s is one of the very largest Protestant congregations in Indiana and reflects a broad spectrum of social values. Like one’s view toward Christians, you cannot frame the identity into one simple observation. Very complex. As complex as any religion, here in our community or anywhere in the world.

  5. patmcc, I remember when black was considered a hate word by many people of color. Language evolves. Roll with it.

  6. In this era of easily accessible knowledge is ignorance that produces so much racism really just ignorance? Or is it willful ignorance?
    Wasn’t it Scott Peck who wrote that the original sin was laziness?

  7. patmcc, I too have a hard time hearing ‘queer’, as it was a slur when I was growing up – but, the community gets to claim the term if they choose, and many of my LGBTQ+ friends use and identify with that word, so even though I inwardly still flinch – that’s MY problem. I’m the one that needs to get over it.

    My father, who was a union member and staunch Democrat, was also a staunch bigot, evolved as he aged – to the point that he loved his granddaughter’s fiancée and their mixed-race child, and his chosen minister who was Black and had a white wife & mixed-race child who my dad loved. That minister spoke at dad’s funeral & told of a conversation they had about Jews (who my dad continued to despise, although he knew none, probably up to the day he died), and even though he tried every logical way to talk dad out of his position, he couldn’t move him. Some irrational hatred can’t be changed. We have to work harder with our children, and unfortunately will have to wait for the old bigots to pass on. 🙁

  8. Pope John Paul II decided to formulate what he called a “general and millennial confession of sins!”

    This included but was not limited to the Crusades, the support of dictatorships, division in churches, the various support of wars throughout history, anti-Semitism, The inquisitions, the mafia, and lastly racism!

    This was actually a pretty big deal back in the mid ’90s, but, did it do any good?

    Racism is not just an epidemic amongst individuals from one race to another, but, individuals of the same ethnic and racial backgrounds hate their fellow. A great example of this is currently the Memphis situation where black officers beat death a young black man on his way home. And if you’ve not seen the tape of that, horrific doesn’t even come close.

    It’s the same during the second World war when you had those of Jewish descent actually working as commanders in the German Nazi military. And of course, regular SS and Stormtroopers. Although when they served their traitoris purposes, they themselves were put to death.

    Really, it’s been said that the only real Americans are the natives who were here originally, and the Africans who are brought here against their will! That might be too simplistic but it does have merit!

    Let’s face it, religion has exacerbated racism through the millennia. Somehow, the Christian religion decided that it was white. Even though the Christian religions and their namesake Jesus Christ was not white. His apostles were not white, many of his disciples were women, many were also Asian. So, go figure!

    As mentioned before, the church used the manipulation of scripture, and the refusal to allow individuals to be literate, and especially to prevent translations of scripture into various languages, so they could control the narrative on race.

    Who was good, who deserved to be slaves, and on and on. This is brought out in several threads over the past year. The churches, both the Church of Rome and the Protestant churches, acquired unimaginable wealth from not just the slave trade, but pillaging by holy commission, the wealth from the new world so to speak. Completely wiping out entire civilizations.

    It still happening today, and if all of the churches banded together and told everyone to stop doing what they’re doing, it would actually make a difference. Especially when you tell people that they would not be allowed to come in and worship or they would be excommunicated or whatever because the conduct is so egregious. But that would cut into the flow of wealth into the church. And, we can’t have that now can we?

    Muslims are just as guilty as the Christian churches, and, there’s also plenty of culpability in the Hebrew religions.

    Caucasian converts to Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism, adopted and manipulated teachings to suit their needs. Because none of these religions were actually Caucasian. They were Jewish, they were Arab, they were Asian, they were Persian, they were Hindu, all used by Caucasians to subjugate and manipulate.

    Keep people uneducated, keep people illiterate, that way, they can be told what to believe, and they have no way to verify anything they are taught! That directly relates to what we have today!

  9. Yes, John, the voucher system allows for legalized segregation and is a form of institutional racism. It allows parents to censor what their kids are exposed to at school.

    Sheila commented, “…blame for the disappointments in their lives.”

    Her statement is almost verbatim of the Victim archetype in Jungian psychology. We all have the Victim archetype, but some have worked through the stages of feeling disempowered by external sources (fill in the blank).

    Transitioning from a disempowered being to an empowered state is a goal of this life. When you realize that all the power in the world originates internally within each of us, you will gain genuine self-esteem. You’ll also move toward a state of compassion for all people struggling with disempowerment.

    What’s fascinating is the companion archetype to the Victim is the Bully. This is highly prevalent today, but mainly in the US/EU.

    If you are unaware of this victim mentality or archetype, I suppose it’s called ignorance. As long as victims gather with other victims to blame others, they’ll never get anywhere.

  10. Sheila- glad you got the uplift from the church folks. Get it now before they die out. Many fewer young people are saying they have any religion, much less attending a place of worship. Without some bedrock of values/principles they are steadily moving toward “anything goes”/my values are me.

  11. One of my Jewish classmates in 5th grade took me to the local temple. She was a sweetheart and I appreciated seeing her place of worship against my childhood Catholicism rituals. When I graduated from college in 2005, I had to take another religion class and compared all of the planets’ religion. That’s one reason I don’t follow any of them. I am always rooting for the little guy/gal. Everyone is equal no matter who they worship.

    My mother had two children in her first marriage and after the grandma of my siblings died, we found out she (GMA) was Jewish. But, in-the-closet Jew. It took a lifetime to understand her views that my mother shouldn’t marry a “WOP” after divorcing her good for nothing convict son. She was conflicted inside. Her grandchildren or great grands are still evangelical Catholics. They don’t embrace their heritage at all. We have no idea why GMA hid it but she lived during Hitler’s time so I’m sure she might have feared for her life, maybe.

  12. Todd, I do not believe that any Jews were among the commanders in the Nazi army.
    Sonderkommandos were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners,
    who were helping the Nazis do their dirty work within the camps, and, in all probability,
    knew that they would be killed immediately, if they did not acquiesce to the Nazi
    orders. They were more hated, in the camps, than the Germans.
    Yes, there is ignorance and there is stubborn, insistent ignorance. The latter is worse
    than the former. I do not know that most people would be motivated to do some real
    searching, researching, about a category of people he/she thinks poorly of, but, I am sure
    that the insistently ignorant/hateful would neither happen to come across any stereotype
    breaking information, nor search out the same.
    I read a book, some years ago, about the presence of varieties of sexuality, in the human,
    and, it turned out, other mammalian beings, called “Evolution’s Rainbow, Diversity, Gender and
    Sexuality in Nature and People,” by Joan Roughgarden, which I found to be very educational. I was
    already an “ally” of the various gendered, and that may have been what drew me want to to read the
    book, rather than to want to burn it. It might be that people in Sheila’s St. Luke’s church might be
    willing to read this, but certainly not those in the Westboro Baptist Church…talk about the insistently
    Gee, I wonder why those folks don’t blame their God-thing for making so many “Other” types, as in
    “What was He/She thinking?”..well, not really.

  13. The my dog is bigger than your dog doesn’t work in today’s society. We can all live peacefully.

  14. Our enemy is evil, an oft cited abstraction used to describe the dysfunctional side of human nature which is locked in a perennial struggle for the power to impose what’s best for some individuals on the rest.

    War is crime fighting against evil when it elevates to its most destructive level.

    There are only two poles, freedom and power, and the struggle to maintain freedom has been nearly endless and brutal. While the flags and colors change periodically, the fact is there’s no escaping the duality of who we as humans are.

  15. We humans tend to hate what we have, when it comes to prejudices. One of my supervisors, who happened to be from Iowa asked me why people in Indiana seemed to hate black people. He assured me that it wasn’t like that in Iowa. I told him that I was sure that BOTH black families who lived in Iowa probably were pretty well treated. Yes it was an exaggeration, but I was able to make my point. In the Midwest, they hate the blacks and the Jews. In SoCal, they hate the Mexicans. In Florida, we just hate everyone different from US . US is defined as white Christians and since those white Christians believe the male is dominant, we don’t trust females to think for themselves so we might not HATE them, but they are “less than”.

    These things probably won’t change during my lifetime. The first step is to stop worrying about labels. The first thing we need to recognize is the person in all of us. Let’s hope that future generations will understand that, despite their progenitors’ admonitions to the contrary.

  16. Much if not all of what you say is true! I would add that we all, or nearly all, have healing to do, particularly as adults. I will give myself as an example. I need(ed) to heal from the bullying I experienced as a child. I also had insecure attachment to all – including my parents. As a Jew I had/have healing – historically – well beyond The Holocaust – Anti-Semitism and horrific acts were done in Portugal – circa 1492, as well as far further back. I was clumsy – tall, and loved sports as a boy in West Lafayette – was the last boy picked for recess kickball teams. When we Don’t – do the work (which for me at least is lifelong work) to heal, oft times – we in a sense lose a part of our humanity – our empathy – our caring for others, particularly beyond our immediate circles of family, co-workers, neighbors etc. We are then open to the influence of others, who play upon our fears, as well as (particularly now) things like social media. We who are Jews – often – play upon our fears – and take it out on the Palestinians, in Israel-Palestine. We hear the voices – that push on our fears – in whatever areas we are (most) vulnerable. Working class white people – often fear Black People, while their “enemy” (if there is one) is those who are economically exploiting both white and Black working class people. Upper-middle class parents – take out their fears on CRT and us “radical” or “liberals” or “do gooders” – when it isn’t immigrants or trans women/girls or Black People. I have my own issues of racism, sexism, homo/lesbian/trans phobia, classism – despite my active work on such issues. There are narcissists and others who use their power – to put others down – recklessly and dangerously from privilege. Most of us – really – are “middle ground” – “don’t want to be bothered” types – who can tacitly support the craziness – or more optimistically can be reached – when we hear their concerns – even their fears – and share and care with them and for them. Thanks!

  17. Great blog, Sheila. Thank you. Responding to the comments: It’s challenging to know which word to use to describe a population that is not seen as offensive by someone. As Sharon puts it, language evolves…

  18. There are other groups who are hated but we never see them mentioned when talking about racial, bigoted, religious and sexual orientation hatreds. I became a white member of that race when I married the black man; we, along with other races and religions and genders, are frequently hated by family and friends as much as those other race and religious and sexual orientation groups themselves are hated. My parents, Dad especially, disowned me and later disinherited me; they replaced me in their will with my ex-husband and named him executor over my two brothers. Dad had offered to pay me if I would drop the divorce from my white husband. It appears to me that hatred is a necessary emotion for most people; it makes no sense and rarely has a basis for the hatred. My parents did, years later, reclaimed me as a family member and removed my ex-husband…when I had been single for a number of years.

    Is that “Behavior Versus Identity” or part of our mental makeup?

  19. “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”

    The above copied sentence points to the root of white male anger in our country. Whether it is young white men committing mass murders with automatic rifles or middle-aged to older white men who are angry about losing their status in society. A status, by the way, that they never earned. A status that has been handed down to white males since the founding of our country. How dare any uppity women or people of color dare to think that they deserve an improved status and a fair shake in our society just because they have worked so much harder than the white men who inherited their status.

  20. Lester – you alluded to obtaining a bedrock of values from attending church in your comment. Why should church be the only place to obtain good values? How about right at home? In my opinion, that should be the first and most important place to teach children a good set of values.

  21. Nancy,

    Couldn’t agree more….but it is happening less and less as one’s “brand” /tribal memberships replace more universal values/principles in the generations following us. Have you read “Bowling Alone”?

  22. Lester. An atheist can be just as compassionate, generous, forgiving and worthy of admiration as any religious person of any faith. The waning of religion does not mean there has been or will be any waning of values.

  23. I’m with Nancy,white males need to be ostracized. Also I ask that they no longer be allowed to post their opinions here.

  24. JoAnn. So sad there is still a racial bias in mixed marriages. Today I see many more mixed couples.
    The Table of Nations described in Genesis 10 shows how places and nations in ancient history are named after Noah’s offspring… we are all related.

  25. I only heard one moral value from my father: Be considerate of others: be aware that they’re different. Took me a few years to fully understand that it’s the essence of religion’s moral value. He helped integrate the Navy under Truman.
    Systemic? I think not. Unfinished work? Perhaps.
    God may not exist, but Jordan Peterson, when asked his religion, if he thinks God exists, responds obliquely with “I act as if she does…”.
    That’s religious morality. Of course, he wrote the book.
    Not “12 Rules for Life”, but “Maps of Meaning”, which I don’t recommend because it’s too hard to understand. It’s too precise about ambiguity.
    Sorry for your lost childhoods, folks. It happens to many.

  26. I have read that it is never too late to have a good childhood. Not an opaque observation and worth placing into ones individual context. And worth working for.

    When I awoke to the reality and possibility that I did have some power that could begin to hold doors open, changes began. In my freshly seen new context, I saw myself, the child of a person wildly emotional, frequently hysterical, more frequently cruel and violent, a person who appeared to equate parenthood with ownership, a person who strengthened in bigotry with age and who (as I much, much later realized)was afraid of an infinite and ever growing hoard of humans who could not be trusted and never had her best interests in mind. My solution to my ugly childhood, aside from getting very sick and nearly dying, was to bifurcate my mother into two entities – one, beautiful, creative, smart, funny, kind, a loyal friend – likeable and worthwhile – another who was a complete non-starter as a parent – a cross-wired individual (her words) who created a nightmare world arrayed against her at every turn, yet stayed bravely alive in it for a very long time (suicide in her early 60s).

    My childhood got better and better as I accepted that I had, indeed, survived the nightmare – I did not die, I was, more and more, making something of my self, despite the reality of the horror with which it began. The fear within which I existed still maintained its terror, but I more and more was able to choose not to live there.

    This brief step back into the past may seem tidy and deliberate, but it was/is not. Neither is it finished. There was no foresight, but inch by inch, hope appeared and remains. I easily quip that I can outline my entire life trajectory in a sentence: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    Who could feel tragic about becoming a Canadian, about inhabiting a magical globe of vivid beauty. It seems that another secret of having a happy childhood, even, or especially later in life, is that it can lead to a happy adult life. Who knew…

Comments are closed.