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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Fear, Hatred and Prejudice, When Someone Different Moves In.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 8th 2008

 Twilight Zone Episode:

This topic reminds me of one of the brilliant Twilight Zone programs from years ago written by Rod Serling. In the particular episode for this program strange things begin to happen in a typical American suburban neighborhood. Late one summer night strange things start to happen, such as the street and house lights getting turned on and off without any one doing it. Before long rumors start to spread among the long time neighbors that one of them may be from outer space.  As you can imagine, fear and start to spread. All logic and reason leaves the people who now become a seething mob. Suddenly, they attack and kill the neighbor most under suspicion. When his innocence is suddenly established they turn on one another. The scene then shifts to an alien rocket ship in which one alien (presumably a Martian) says to the other, "See, we don't need to intervene to conquer them, just turn their electricity on and off and they will soon kill each other and our job is done."

Why did this program jump into my memory? Well, I recently witnessed something in my new neighborhood that could have turned into something just as bad.

We moved into our new home and neighborhood over this past August, 2008. The house, set in a bucolic area of the state, is also quiet and filled with friendly neighbors.

In meeting, getting to know and chatting with many of them I learned that the home across the street from us was occupied by the "Albanian Mafia." Not only did the occupants speak with a foreign and clearly East European accent but they rebuilt the inside and outside of their home. Evidently, it was significant that the workers who completed the project also spoke with the same type of accent. Even worse was the fact that they were over-heard talking in a strange foreign language reminiscent of Russian or some other Slavic nation.
I was told that the old man who lives there is the owner of a construction company and the workers were his. In addition, his son or sone-in-law (no one knew them and so no one knew whether the wife or husband belonged to the elderly parents) worked for the old man and was now taking over the construction business. I was told in no uncertain terms that the construction company was a front for criminal activities of all sorts.

I might have taken all of this seriously had I not already met the supposed "Albanian Mafia" family and come to know them rather quickly after.

First, let me state that we live in an area that is somewhat seasonal in terms of occupancy. Many of the home owners (but not all) are seasonal occupants, coming here when the weather is cold and snowy elsewhere in the United States. This particular family is among many others who are seasonal in their of their home usage.

Setting the record straight:

The family is made up of a wife, husband, three children and grandparents who are in their seventies. Rather than being gangsters who own a construction company, the younger married couple are each medical doctors. The wife is not working because she takes her child rearing duties too seriously but her husband, a surgeon, is constantly at work and rarely on vacation.

The the alleged criminal head of this "dangerous family" is, in reality, a High School Teacher who is about to retire.

The wife and non working physician is the daughter of the elderly couple. Elderly couple, daughter and son-in-law do not come from Albania but people who managed, with great difficulty, to leave the Soviet Union before it collapsed. They left because life there was too repressive for their tastes. The older children are in college and the youngest is about to start first grade in September. Oh, yes, the old lady is ill and often on oxygen.

The family has no idea about the mis perceptions of their neighbors.

I quickly set the record straight with everyone who lives near us. People were incredulous when they learned the truth. One person burst out laughing at herself for having been so mistaken.

How Could this Happen?

I suppose a confluence of unfortunate events led up to all of these misunderstandings. For one, many of the people are seasonal occupants and do not take the time to get to know one another. Also, the members speak with a particular accent that is unfamiliar to most of them. The family comes and goes with a different schedule from most everyone else and, therefore, never really gets to meet the other people. Lastly, I made (as I always do) a particular effort to introduce myself to them and begin the process of communication. I quickly came to know that they are a lovely family of hard working and serious individuals who are warm, friendly and very accepting.

What does this tell us:

1. For one thing, racial differences are not the only source of misunderstanding, prejudice and fear among groups of people.

2. If we do not make an effort to meet and really get acquainted with our neighbors a lot of room develops for such unhealthy reactions as fear and suspicion. Those are only a few steps away from the potential for violence.

3. We make many assumptions about people we do not know and seem strange to us. In this case, the usual type of stereotyping began in terms of Russian or Albanian Mafia.

4. A homogeneous in group bands together and views "outsiders" as a threat.

In my opinion it is a real strength of the United States that it is a multi ethnic society. However, it is important that we be vigilant to make certain that we are accepting of those who seem different from us. To do that we must be careful to avoid stereotyping other people, be they of a different ethnic, racial or sexual group.

I am also reminded of the dangers of mob violence and seething hatred of differences by events that happened after the 9/11/2001 tragedies of the suicide attack on the United States. Afterwards, supposed Muslims were attacked in the streets resulting in the deaths of several of "them." As it turned out the people who were attacked were Sikhs from India who are not Muslim at all. In fact, the tragedy occurred because they where a distinctive type of turban around the head. Worse than that is that the tragedy of 9/11 is no excuse for harming anyone, Muslim or otherwise.  Why blame the innocent for the radical acts of a tiny minority?

In a time of terrorism and war we need to avoid mass psychosis and national scape goating.

Your comments, reactions and experiences with these types of things are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

 

 

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Double edged sword - Silentmist - Dec 11th 2008

    Stereotyping is 'kind of' inevitable in my opinion, due to the way we process our perceptions and streamline them into simplistic patterns so that we can go about our lives without having loose sight of what it is that we are doing at any given moment.

    I think that pinning values onto people via thier ethnicity, gender, age, looks, clothing, movement etc etc (there are many more ways) is both postive and negative.  Positive becuase I believe that awareness is emergent from contrast and association (of perceptions, memory) and having quick and dirty thinking can provoke further perceptions.  Negative because it's all too easy to get carried away with first impressions and act apon them by deciding to either approach or avoid someone based on common, communal schemas applied to individuals superficially.

    Personally speaking, what I got from this article is that I need to slow down and not get carried away with impressions.

    Thanks Allen, good article :)

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