Intergroup Anxiety

This video about intergroup anxiety was really interesting to me. I have found myself in the position described in the video of trying so hard to be fair that I overcompensate by acting weird. Once when I was at a conference, I was so awkward when placed in a discussion group with two women I didn’t know, I had trouble looking at one of the women. I couldn’t figure out why, and I am still not sure. She called me on it, and I felt awful for days. (I have since learned this is a typical White fragility reaction.) I usually bank on people ignoring my awkwardness. She definitely thought it had to do with her race, but I have reflected on this incident now for some six years, and I don’t think that it was race, but she was right that there was something else about her that did make me anxious, and I don’t know what it was. The only thing I congratulate myself on when I think about it is at least I didn’t cry and make it about my feelings. And I did try harder after that. Maybe too hard, in order to overcompensate.

By the way, I know that avoiding eye-contact isn’t always anxiety. I recently spoke to a teenager on the autism spectrum who said he can either focus on what someone is saying, or he can look them in the eye, but he cannot do both because it takes too much concentration to do both. I have seen this at times in my own daughter, who is also on the autism spectrum.

One of the biggest issues I have with anybody when I’m feeling awkward is maintaining culturally appropriate eye contact, and then I start to become anxious about realizing I’m not maintaining eye contact. I sort of go outside my body and start criticizing myself for being so awkward that I find it even harder to be present in the conversation.

That was a bit of a tangent, but an important one. It isn’t that I disagree with the video’s argument that having difficulty with eye contact can be a sign of intergroup anxiety, but it could also be something else, and we should keep that in mind when reading body language. I don’t think we can assume that everyone naturally feels comfortable in social situations and knows what behaviors are expected. Not that I’m on the “assume good intentions” train because we can’t discount the impact, but maybe we shouldn’t assume bad intentions (although I do understand that impulse, particularly if you have bad experiences). At the end of the video, L. Song Richardson says she likes to give people “more of an opportunity to demonstrate who they are.”

As a follow-up to my last post about implicit bias, I suspect that if you seize opportunities to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, you might come to feel much more comfortable around people who are not like you. This is critical work for teachers, just as understanding implicit bias is. As Richardson says, you might wind up doing harm to your students’ learning.

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