Conference Report: Stigmatization and Discrimination

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 8-9.

Kristen Clayton,
University of Georgia

Michéle Lamont (Harvard) organized an informative session titled “Stigmatization and Discrimination”, in which she, Graziella Moraes D. Silva (The Graduate Institute, Geneva),  Jessica S. Wellburn (University of Iowa), and Joshua Guetzkow (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) discussed findings from their book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel. Throughout the session, presenters discussed how cultural context shapes perceptions of and responses to stigmatization and discrimination.

Moraes D. Silva focused on stigmatization and discrimination in Brazil. Based on 160 in-depth interviews with working and middle-class Brazilians, she explored how black Brazilians understand and experience racism and how they make decisions about whether and how to respond. She found that respondents believed there was racism in Brazil but that the “subtle, masked, and veiled” nature of racism made it difficult to say when they had experienced it. Respondents’ also highlighted the intersection of race and class, as many black Brazilians believed they were stigmatized and discriminated against because their race was interpreted as a sign of low socioeconomic status. Some Brazilians responded to racism by calmly confronting and attempting to educate the perpetrators. In other situations, they subtly responded to mistreatment, conveying the message “that was racist and you are misrecognizing me” without actually naming race.  Alternatively, participants sometimes chose not to respond to stigmatization and discrimination at all because they did not know how or did not have the energy to react.  

Jessica S. Wellburn continued the discussion by highlighting African Americans’ experiences with stigmatization and discrimination in the United States. She explored how working and middle-class African Americans navigate persistent racism and how their strategies for responding to stigmatization and discrimination vary by class, gender, and age. She found that participants easily recalled a number of experiences with racism. For most types of incidents, there was no significant class variation; both working and middle-class African Americans had many experiences with stigmatization (e.g. assaults on worth) and discrimination (e.g. exclusion; denial of access to resources). Respondents had a repertoire of strategies for dealing with these experiences, including confronting the perpetrator (e.g. filing a formal complaint, speaking out), management of the self (e.g. humor, picking battles), not responding or isolating oneself. Interestingly, when asked how to best improve African Americans’ circumstances, many highlighted individual-level strategies (e.g. working harder, placing more emphasis on education, and strengthening morals and families in black communities) that did not correspond with their own strategies for navigating racism. Relatedly, respondents were less likely to emphasize collective strategies for group improvement. Based on her data, Wellburn suggests that African Americans may be becoming more individualistic in their discussions of inequality.

Joshua Guetzkow discussed his work on Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and Ethiopian Jews in Israel. His discussion focused on how symbolic boundaries differently positioned these groups in relation to Israeli Jews and how these different positions led to group differences in perceptions of and responses to stigmatization and discrimination. The Israeli Palestinian respondents were full citizens of Israel yet not full members of the imagined religious community. Ethiopian Jews were full members of the imagined religious community but perceived as inferior due to ethnic and racial stereotypes associating Africa with backwardness. Despite the fact that the two groups occupied similar disadvantaged structural positions, symbolic boundaries predicated on different forms of difference resulted in different perceptions of and responses to stigma and discrimination. Ethiopian Jews in Israel were more likely to perceive discrimination as a personal affront based on ethnic and racial stereotypes of inferior capabilities, whereas Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel perceived discrimination as the result of enduring, large-scale religious and political conflicts. Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel embraced education for advancement, but not assimilation and believed that confronting the perpetrators of discrimination would not change anything. In contrast, Ethiopian Jews were more likely to confront perpetrators, responding to stigma and discrimination in an attempt to prove their capabilities. They were also more likely to emphasize education for assimilation.

Bernice A. Pescosolido (Indiana University, Bloomington) concluded the session by highlighting the major themes of the book and accompanying ASA session. She introduced a broader discussion of stigma and discrimination by making connections between how these concepts are conceptualized in race scholarship and in medical sociology. The session was highly informative, highlighting how minority groups feel and respond to stigma and discrimination differently in different national contexts, and how these perceptions and responses are shaped by their cultural context and the cultural repertories available to them.