Finding Trust

May 3rd, 2007

Late on a bone-chilling night in January, an off-duty police officer named Cornel Young Jr. stopped for take-out food at Fidas Restaurant, an all-night diner on the west side of Providence. While Young waited for his order, a fight broke out in the parking lot, and a man named Aldrin Diaz pulled a gun. As the Fidas night manager called 911, Young drew his own weapon, stepped out into the parking lot, and aimed his pistol at Diaz. He identified himself as a cop. By this time, other police were on the scene, and the shouting grew more intense. "Drop it!" screamed the uniformed officers, and when Young failed to put down his weapon, they fired six rounds, killing him instantly. Cornel Young Jr. was black. All the shooters were white.

On campus a few days later, under the purple glare of fluorescent lights in Hunter Lab, Professor Ferdinand Jones and his class of fifty students struggle to come to grips with the shooting. Was Young a victim of mistaken identity, or was his death another blatant case of racial profiling? Leading the discussion, Jones tells his students that in his opinion, race was involved. "But when I say race is involved, I’m not sure I mean the same thing other people mean," Jones cautions. "That’s not the same as saying racism is involved. Race affects perceptions, affects how people make decisions. You need to look very carefully at race so you can get beyond it."

That kind of careful thinking is what Jones, a professor emeritus of psychology, is trying to inspire in his students. His class, Psychology 22, Cultural Mistrust, applies scientific thinking to a range of social problems. Together, Jones and his students ask what culture is, how it can be studied, and how it affects people’s behavior, communication, and perceptions – as well as their misperceptions. And the Cornel Young Jr. shooting is another opportunity to abandon hypotheticals and talk about the world outside.

Cultural Mistrust is a course about differences, and how to negotiate them as honestly as possible. Students examine personal interactions in which differences can be overt – as in race, gender, or sexual orientation. They also study exchanges involving more subtle differences – such as ethnicity, religion, social class, or age. A key to understanding and coping with difference, Jones says, is acknowledging that it’s there. Pretending that differences don’t exist can sometimes avoid conflict in the short term; but resolving differences is only possible after working toward a frank understanding of what separates people.

Too often, however, interactions among people with little in common are hampered by what separates them. And the mistrust that springs from these differences can have unexpected and wide-ranging consequences. For example, Jones says, in the field of mental health there’s a perception that nonwhites can’t benefit from psychotherapy. As a result, minorities with psychiatric problems tend to get prescriptions, not counseling. Some studies have shown that when physical illness is involved, African Americans are less likely than Caucasians to get the medical care they need – although it’s not clear whether this is a result of physicians treating black patients differently from white ones, or whether African Americans are more reluctant to talk to doctors in the first place. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

"Even though," Jones explains, "this is a topic in psychology that’s difficult to study – you can’t examine it in a laboratory under controlled conditions – I want my students to know that, nonetheless, we can gain scientific knowledge of important dynamics in our society."

Jones’s perspective on reconciliation has a novel source. A clinical psychologist and director of Brown’s psychological services department from 1975 until 1992, he knows how to read both what people say and what they assume. Jones describes himself as having come belatedly to a teaching career. While working as a psychologist in private practice in the mid-1960s, he says, he was identified by the staff at Sarah Lawrence College as someone who could bring "the racial angle" to a class on urban education. Jones enjoyed teaching so much that he stayed on at Sarah Lawrence until coming to Brown. He developed Cultural Mistrust six years ago at the request of the dean of faculty, who recognized the need for a class on race relations and thought Jones was uniquely qualified to lead it.

Having two different but complementary careers clearly influences Jones’s teaching. He is soft-spoken and disinclined to lecture, preferring, in Psychology 22, to involve students in presentations and experiential exercises that cut to the heart of the matter at hand. One class discussion is triggered by Jones’s invitation to write on the blackboard "who’s here and how you identify yourself today." With a jazz CD by vocalist Abbey Lincoln playing in the background, the students come up to the blackboard and write who they are: "Mother," "Christian," "African American," "strong Asian-American man," "freshman," "compassionate," "Chinese family’s daughter."

Over the years Cultural Mistrust has been wildly popular, Jones says. At one time the class enrolled 250 students, but these days he keeps the numbers down by beefing up the reading and writing requirements. Jones prefers teaching techniques that, in his words, "let me have an interaction with everyone." For Nicholas Everage ’01, a community-health concentrator, the mixture of science and experience makes Cultural Mistrust especially appealing. "Professor Jones wants to share his knowledge," Everage says, "but he also wants it to be our venture. You don’t always get that from other professors."

On a snowy morning in early February, every seat in Hunter Lab 206 is occupied. Ferdinand Jones is asking his students to "reveal the words and phrases you live by." Shyly at first, the students begin to volunteer:

"Put yourself in other people’s shoes."

"Variety is the spice of life."

"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it."

"Do your best and God will do the rest."

Such axioms, Jones tells his class, can indicate how an individual sees himself or herself in relation to other people, and that, in turn, tells a lot about culture. North Americans and Western Europeans, for example, tend to be individualistic, while Africans and Asians tend to be collectivist, making decisions "guided by who they are in relation to other people." This individualist-collectivist distinction may seem oversimplified, Jones says, but it’s a difference that can lead to serious misperceptions and misunderstandings when cultures collide.

For psychology major Courtney Keeler ’01, discussions of cultural mistrust have a particular poignancy. In addition to the usual stresses of student life, Keeler, the mother of a two-year-old son, must worry about "what it means to be raising a black male in this society. "Already," she says, "I see how other kids react to him. Some kids run away from him because he’s black. At some point, my son will want to know why people react to him the way they do. As a mother I want to know: how do I teach my son about race?" Keeler doesn’t think Cultural Mistrust, or any class, will ever really tell her how to do that. "But the class," she says, "is broadening my perspective."

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Related Issue
January / February 2005