…that minority status is always emphasized, while dominant groups remain invisible and unexamined?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that minority status is always emphasized, while dominant groups remain invisible and unexamined?

A: By the time this column is published, I’ll be presenting my next paper at Oxford’s Round Table Symposium on Social Justice. The cornerstone of my presentation discloses the ways in which social “minority” groups are marginalized (cast outside of the mainstream status quo) by dominant groups in society. While the focus of my presentation is on women’s issues, the social psychological strategies are directly applicable to any dominant group (racial, religious, political or otherwise) that has a vested interest in skewing public perception, while maintaining the anonymity of its own agenda.

One of the courses I teach is the Psychology of Women. This course is required for Women’s Studies majors but may also be taken as an elective by other undergraduates. However, all undergraduates are required to take Introduction to Psychology (Psych 101) – regardless of their interests or declared major. Defined as the study of “Human Behavior,” Psych 101 is designed to familiarize students with the fundamentals of psychology as a scientific field of study. So why the need for a separate and distinct course devoted to the psychology of women – after all, aren’t women also considered human?

In 1879, Gustav LeBon (an early founder of psychology) stated,

“there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brain. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment…All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women recognize that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt, there exist some distinguished women very superior to the average man – but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity – for example a two headed gorilla – consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

Based on these types of sexist ideologies, one can easily see why a separate course in the Psychology of Women came to fruition. But what isn’t readily apparent is that the theories and concepts in Psych 101 courses were developed by men, about men and for men. This aspect remains invisible – while drawing distinctions of “women” as a separate group (outside the confines of mainstream, status quo concerns).

What if we were to label Psych 101 courses as, “The Psychology of Men”? How striking would that be? If we were to do this – the educational segregation by sex would become readily visible for all to see. But instead, we label Psych 101 (which is, in reality, the Psychology of Men) as simply, the study of human behavior – keeping women safely excluded from the cultural mainstream.

This also applies to the framing of our statements. For example, we typically read that “1 out of 3 women will be abused in her lifetime” – versus “1 out of 3 men will become abusers.” Or, that “minorities do not have equal access to resources” – as opposed to “minorities have been denied access to resources.” Notice how the former statements highlight the victimization and personal shortcomings of women and minorities, while protecting the dominant groups from accountability, examination and scrutiny?

“One of the ways dominance functions is through being unexamined. For example, when we hear the word race in the United States we tend to immediately think African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, etc. When we hear the term sexual orientation, we tend to think gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. When we hear the term gender, we tend to think women. In each case the dominant group, white people, heterosexual people, men, don’t get examined. As if men don’t have a gender. As if white people don’t belong to some racial grouping. As if heterosexual people don’t have some sort of sexual orientation. In other words we focus always on the subordinated group and not on the dominant group. And that’s one of the ways that the power of dominant groups isn’t questioned – by remaining invisible.” (Dr. Jackson Katz, 2000).

These institutionalized and adopted cultural patterns are deliberately manufactured in order to protect dominant groups from social criticism – allowing them to maintain their social power, dominance and control by skewing the perceptions of the unsuspecting masses. To see clearly, we must lift the veils – exposing the illusions that dictate our social norms.