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Reflection
February 26, 2021+Erec Smith
+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

The Importance of Intrapersonal Empowerment in American Race Relations

As is typical with any Black History Month, pro-black sentiment is centered and mainstream. With this Black History Month happening at a time of intense racial reckoning, one can argue that pro-black sentiment is more robust than it ever has been. I consider this a good thing. A celebration of Black America has hardly balanced out the anti-black sentiment that marks most of America’s history and much of its present, so we should expect displays of black excellence and resilience. But, too often, I see black-centered messaging that claims to be pro-black but has a dangerous potential of painting blackness in a negative light. One can even say they paint a picture of Blackness that is not triumphant but, under the guise of triumph, displays a weakness that seems to be dominating societal representations of black Americans.

This essay argues that varying levels of intrapersonal empowerment shape the varying viewpoints within the black community and that if we understand the causes for these variations, we can be better informed as we move toward racial justice. After explaining intrapersonal empowerment and how it shapes our viewpoints, I will show the effects of both low and high intrapersonal empowerment. Although I will make my stance clear, I ask readers to determine which intrapersonal disposition they find more suitable for personal and societal progress.

Intrapersonal Empowerment

In “Toward Practical Empowerment,” I argue that many pedagogical and activist attempts at anti-racism are doomed from the beginning because they skip attention to “the intrapersonal,” one of three necessary disposition in empowerment theories that focuses on one’s relationship with oneself and includes healthy self-awareness and self-regulation that can enhance intrinsic motivation and positive self-regard. How this intrapersonal disposition is developed and how it can be cultivated through mindfulness, metacognition, and emotional intelligence is beyond the scope of this essay. Here, I want to discuss how different levels of intrapersonal empowerment can result in different ways of seeing the world.

Ideally, someone with a strong grasp of intrapersonal empowerment develops an intrinsic secure base, a word psychologist George Kohlreiser defines as “a person, place, goal or object that provides a sense of protection, safety and caring and offers a source of inspiration and energy for daring, exploration, risk taking and seeking challenge.” He emphasizes that “any entity that through a relationship enhances the person’s inner sense of safety and inspires exploration can be a secure base.” So, to build a strong intrapersonal component of empowerment is to create an intrinsic secure base; that is, oneself is the “person, place, goal, or object” that constitutes it.

I believe one’s intrapersonal disposition shapes and colors the filter through which one sees the world. In rhetorical studies, this filter is commonly called a “terministic screen,” a term coined by Kenneth Burke. Burke claims that all sincere language use is a reflection of reality, but “[e]ven if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality.” Burke is concerned with how terministic screens direct attention, causing us to see and emphasize some things over others. We all have terministic screens. Burke admits that any discourse “necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others.” My concern is not with terministic screens, per se; it is what constitutes these screens.

I argue that the concept of a terministic screen is important here because what one decides to select and deflect depends heavily on one’s level of intrapersonal empowerment. Low intrapersonal empowerment can lead to terministic screen of “negative emotionality” (NE), conceptualized by Auke Tellegen and Niels G. Waller and described by Scott Lilienfeld as “a pervasive temperamental disposition to experience aversive emotions of many kinds, including anxiety, worry, moodiness, guilt, shame, hostility, irritability, and perceived victimization.” Citing studies spanning 25 years, Lilienfeld continues to write: “Individuals with elevated levels of NE tend to be critical and judgmental of both themselves and others, vulnerable to distress and emotional maladjustment, and inclined to focus on the negative aspects of life. These individuals “also tend to be vigilant and overreactive to potential stressors” and are “prone to interpreting ambiguous stimuli in a negative light.”

Regarding race relations, particularly those involving black Americans, negative emotionality—or what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call “negative filtering”—could explain recent ousting of a prominent journalist for referencing the use of a racial slur or, saying a Chinese word that merely sounds like a racial slur. In these cases, a terministic screen of negative emotionality—a negative filter—erased context and nuance and zeroed in on the things that correlate most to racial oppression. Through such a terministic screen, referencing an instance in which a racial slur was used on someone is tantamount to actually using a racial slur on someone.

The interpretive results of seeing the world this way may be reified in a particular definition of antiblackness, a term often used to denote the distinctions between racism perpetrated on blacks and that perpetrated against other people of color. In “Be Real Black for Me: Imagining BlackCrit in Education,” Michael Dumas and kihana ross write that

antiblackness does not signify a mere racial conflict that might be resolved through organized political struggle and appeals to the state and to the citizenry for redress. Instead, antiblackness marks an irreconcilability between the Black and any sense of social or cultural regard. The aim of theorizing antiblackness is not to offer solutions to racial inequality, but to come to a deeper understanding of the Black condition within a context of utter contempt for, and acceptance of violence against the Black. (emphasis added)

Dumas and ross insist that “the Black,” which they define in “Against the Dark: Antiblackness in Education Policy and Discourse,” as “the presence of Black bodies, or more precisely, the imagination of the significance of Black bodies in a certain place,” is an inherently racist phenomenon inadvertently perpetuated by society at large. Dumas and ross’s hopeless assessment of society and their apparent certainty about societal racial animus prompts another citation of Lukianoff and Haidt, specifically their use of the terms “catastrophizing” (“Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as most likely”) and “mind reading” (“Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts”) to name a few.

I argue that all this stems from low intrapersonal empowerment. Low intrapersonal empowerment causes us to develop a terministic screen that “selects” the negative and “deflects” the positive and, therefore, shapes the world as irredeemably racist. In this essay I want to make two things clear: this negative terministic screen is not shared by all Black people and that a terministic screen shaped by high intrapersonal empowerment may paint a picture of the Black American experience that seems to become more and more unorthodox with each passing day.

To be clear, none of this is to say that racism does not exist and manifest in various ways throughout society. I am saying that innocuous happenings can be deemed egregiously racist if one’s terministic screen is calibrated to see racism everywhere. I am also saying that when racism does occur, either overtly or through what are commonly called “microaggressions,” how we handle it may be a direct result of our relationship to intrapersonal empowerment.

Also, I am not promoting what is often called “toxic positivity,” the belief that we should resolve to grin and bear our problems with our chins up, smiling widely. Instead, the intrapersonal component embraces “positive self-regard,” which is a positive yet realistic look at one’s self-efficacy. That is, one’s strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged so that one can realistically gauge a situation and determine what is and is not at one’s disposal. This is not to say “I don’t have the talent to deal with this situation.” It is to say, at worst, “My skill set isn’t ideal, but which one of my talents could I use to make the very best of this situation?” This is not “toxic positivity”; it is the wherewithal to access a situation and act accordingly, and it results from high intrapersonal empowerment.

Nor am I promoting a hyper-individualism that promotes selfish protectionism to the neglect of communal issues. One only needs to acknowledge that intrapersonal empowerment is just one of the three necessary components in empowerment theory. The interactional component of empowerment describes one’s ability to be socially aware and manage relationships with others within a community. The behavioral component describes the ability to use those relationships to enhance teamwork and foster positive change. The other components of empowerment serve as checks and balances of sorts to ensure that the intrapersonal does not devolve into hyper-individualism. What’s more, the intrapersonal ensures that the interactional and behavioral don’t neglect individual freedom.

So, different levels of intrapersonal empowerment create different kinds of terministic screens that cause people to see the same incidents in different ways. To illustrate this point, I want to apply the concept of terministic screens to a common trope in anti-racist activism that is hardly questioned for its apparently universal appeal and blatant connotations of positive social justice: the idea that “representation matters.”

Representation Matters. . . To Whom and How?

A recent,30-second LinkedIn ad features Black voices and their experiences and expectations on the job market. The commercial starts off well. Autumn Breon, a young black woman with a magnificent multi-colored afro—self-described as “the only chocolate drop in most of my classes”—gives an experience in which a professor told her that her aspirations to be a scientist were “unrealistic.” Sadly, I have heard stories like this before and know that it is a common occurrence, especially with black women. However, this young lady’s resolve is clear. She will triumph and has already become the Creative Director and STEM founder for LinkedIn.

But then the commercial takes a turn. It cuts to a young black man with dreadlocks who says, “If all the heroes are white people, you don’t ever really get to imagine yourself as the hero.” This statement is followed by the Black journalist Angel Jennings providing what could be considered the thesis statement of the ad: “This is why representation matters.” I assume many people look at this commercial as a positive step in the right direction, especially for those who typically assume that black people lack an intrinsic secure base that necessitates the purposeful manipulation of the world around them.

I argue that this commercial abides by a terministic screen of low-intrapersonal empowerment. Remember, intrapersonal empowerment denotes self-efficacy, positive self-regard, and an intrinsic secure base that encourages risk. If one needs to see another with a comparable phenotype do something before one feels comfortable attempting to do the same, that person’s source of empowerment derives from extrinsic and not intrinsic sources. A person with high intrapersonal empowerment may know what she wants and have the self-regard and self-efficacy to go for it regardless of whether those already doing it share her skin tone. If representation is at all relevant, it is representation of a skill set or demeanor irrespective of race.

For the Black person with low intrapersonal empowerment, the external world needs to cater to his anxiety and insecurity. However, the Black person with high intrapersonal empowerment may believe that no one should have to see something being done by those of their own race to picture themselves doing it.

As an example of a Black man whose high intrapersonal empowerment dismisses a need for representation, I want to reference W.E.B. DuBois, one of the first Black students to attend Harvard and the first to acquire a Ph.D. from the institution. In an essay chronicling his time and memories, he had this to say about being a Black student at Harvard in the late 1800s:

Towards whites I was not arrogant; I was simply not obsequious, and to a white Harvard student of my day a Negro student who did not seek recognition was trying to be more than a Negro. . . . This cutting of myself off from my white fellows, or being cut off, did not mean unhappiness or resentment. I thoroughly enjoyed life. I was conscious of understanding and power, and conceited enough still to imagine, as in high school, that they who did not know me were the losers, not I.

DuBois had this attitude as a young Black man in the late nineteenth century, when most living Black people had been actual slaves at some point in their lives. This was a time when people of African descent were considered subhuman by many and when white supremacy was ubiquitously considered a fact and not an idea. Still, DuBois did not need black representation. The only representation Dubois needed was that of people pursuing a life of intellectual curiosity and societal progress.

So, the evermore common phrase “representation matters,” heard from a high intrapersonal disposition, sometimes may sound less like the evolution of black resolve and more like its devolution. I see a lack of what I call “The DuBoisian Attitude”: an attitude fortified by a terministic screen built upon self-awareness, positive self-regard, and a secure base that needs little extrinsic supplementation. For someone with this attitude, representation is not necessary. All that is necessary is opportunity—meaning no social or legal barriers to success—and the desire to succeed. DuBois’s world had much less of that than we do now.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that representation is a phenomenon we should not take joy in seeing. Diverse workforces are always a benefit because they tend to be more productive and symbolize societal progress, to name just a couple things. What’s more, as is explained well here, representation may be a very effective goal for early childhood education, the ab initio for building healthy terministic screens and secure bases. However, at a certain point, representation is much less necessary. I will put it simply: wanting representation is healthy and ideal; needing representation is a sign of disempowerment.

I will end this article as the LinkedIn ad ends. In the last few seconds of the ad, as we see a montage of Black professionals, a disembodied voice says, “We feel the energy of our ancestors rooting us on.” I find this statement interesting because it also supports my critique of the ad. To those with high intrapersonal empowerment, the ancestors are rooting us on to life, liberty, and happiness regardless of the obstacles, and I don’t think low representation in professional cultures would be considered a formidable obstacle. Personally, I feel that because the black heroes we celebrate this month showed herculean resolve in the face of oppression I have never known and never will, I feel more emboldened to move toward my goals. If these are the ancestors rooting me on, I don’t need representation. All I need is their resolve. Otherwise, I am dishonoring their legacies.

I have one request. For readers of all races, I ask you to consider which intrapersonal disposition would have the best chance of creating positive progress in this country for all involved.

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