Gambling on Race and Behavior Modification

Getting Cut and Cutting Edge

For haircuts, I frequent a down home barbershop where they know how to cut white hair. Understand the double meaning of “white,” as my hair is changing with age. I may be getting whiter, as a person, too, not in skin pigmentation, but in values, preferences, and comfort with my identity. I’ll get to that; but first, I want to tell you about the barbershop and Terry, my barber.

I go there because Terry cuts my hair very well. He’s reliable, professional, and competent. He’s there when I need a haircut, and he’s also personable. Our relationship is thus far limited to my visiting for haircuts. While I’m in the chair, he makes small chit-chat and responds to my bids to talk. As I mature, I talk less and listen more.

The conversation in this barbershop is from the street: ribald, challenging, and with taunting good nature mixed with one-upmanship—guy stuff, black stuff. Back in the day in the Bronx, blacks would call it “playin’ wich you,” “talkin’ s—t,” “running the numbers,” “talkin’ ‘bout yo mama.” (Did my sweet Jewish mother know what I was up to in the street?) To say the least, the “banter” in this barbershop is not appropriate for children.

The last time I was there, Terry got into it with another barber who was talking about his own gambling problem. Back and forth, back and forth—a dance of sympathy, faux mockery, and challenge. (Snip, snip, snip, as I listen. I’ve learned to trust barbers as they multitask.) Then, Terry says, “Hey, B., I got the solution fo’ you. Every time you feel like gamblin’, you gi’ me ten dollars. Soon, you gonna get tired of givin’ me money, and you gonna stop gamblin’.”

Wow, I thought. What a great and simple adaptation of a behavior modification technique known as response cost: every time you commit a transgression, you pay a cost. It tends to effectively inhibit the behavior attached to the cost. I use this technique routinely in behavior modification programs, along with other techniques, components, and structures. I don’t know what Terry thinks of his technique, or whether he expects his fellow barber to take him up on it (probably not). But this is exemplary of Terry’s common sense, insight, and intelligence. I doubt he’s taken psychology courses, and I don’t know whether he’s ever dealt with addictions of his own. Yet he shows wisdom and maturity that leads me to respect him and infer that he probably demonstrates that in other areas of his life. He runs a thriving business that I patronize.

More respect. Snip, snip.

The barbershop is loud and full of laughter. These are men hard at work, and succeeding in a society that tries to muffle and marginalize them. They have scars I can’t see, and they’re not boasting about them. At least one of the barbers has been to prison. I don’t know what they think of me or what they think I think of them. I’m a well-dressed, older white doctor who comes in for a haircut and beard trim.

On the walls hang pictures of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, along with caps and posters of various sports teams. Terry hails from Portland, and we’ve had light discussions about basketball and whether the Portland Trail Blazers have a chance of getting through the playoffs. Sometimes he talks about his wife and grandchildren. The TV blares whatever sports game happens to be on. There is no FOX news in this shop.

When the barbers tell jokes and “rib” each other, I’m tempted to chime in and offer really good jokes pertinent to the topic of the moment. But I don’t—and I notice my reluctance, which is not like the me I know. It’s certainly not due to intimidation, inhibition, or anxiety. It just seems less appropriate than listening and laughing along. My self-image has changed. I’m less needy of the attention and recognition—and more cautious about my own sense of humor and ethnocentrism.

I grew up in the Bronx, a shell-shocked environment even in the 1950’s. I was needy, competitive, and desperate for recognition. I really didn’t like myself (or my parents), and tried to gain acceptance through sports achievement and becoming a paragon of style and hipness. I was a good student, but regarded this as a liability, especially in gaining popularity with the “cool” crowd and street people. I was hypersensitive, guilt-ridden, and full of scorn for my genetic heritage and endowments. I was a very good athlete, and that somehow carried me through my incessant traumas.

I developed in an age of upheaval and social revolution. New York was a land of exposure, and I heated up with passion, embarrassment, self-doubt, and longing. I lived in a protective and highly conflicted family, went to Hebrew School for a while, and played as much basketball as I could in the gyms and schoolyards. Eventually, I carried some swag. In the schoolyard, the blacks called me “Shorty,” or “Stinky,” (affectionately, as the macho rules go); but the payoff was that they picked me—argued over me— for their teams. And I didn’t disappoint. The real payoff was winning! I—the short, white, incredibly determined and speedy kid—delivered, cumulatively earning a reputation for inclusion and respect.

After the games, the black guys would disperse to wherever they lived and hung out, which was definitely different from and less advantageous than my environs. No one prevented us from having a soda or a lunch together; we just didn’t. That was the unwritten rule. When I got to high school and played on the varsity basketball team, it was almost the same. Advanced classes, hours of daily practice, locker rooms and showers, all with mixed races. Yet the black students rode the subways longer to and from Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and showed up day after day to earn their achievements and kudos.

As an adolescent, I wanted to be black. I felt genetically inferior in areas that mattered to me, and I fantasized about other attributes and advantages I imagined my cohorts to possess. For one thing, they definitely seemed more at ease and competent with girls. Combine these Jewish neuroses and identity issues with the roaring maelstrom of the Black Power movement and the riots and assassinations of that era, and you can imagine the angst and confusion.

Of course, Terry, my barber, knows none of this about me—just like I’m ignorant of his background and challenges. We meet, do business, and exchange pleasantries in 2016; but in the overall scheme of things, what has really changed? Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Orlando, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump…

I’ve changed. I’m comfortable in my own skin (white) and getting more so with my whitening hair. I have a place in this world. I help people, have learned to accept my limitations, and am constantly grateful. I’m not “guilty” about imagined or actual racial perpetrations, yet I recognize the profound and continuing inequities and injustices that continue in a society where I am established and have advantages. I realize that I have social responsibilities, and sometimes they are uncomfortable and require sacrifice. (I struggle much more with “green” than with white or black—becoming environmentally responsible confronts me with my own selfishness and entitlement!)

Though my restraint on jokes in the barbershop flatters my “mature” self-image, admittedly, I’m also aware that I may naively talk about things that are perceived as racist. Yes, we are all people; but men and women experience the world and themselves differently from each other, as do blacks, whites, Hispanics and their variants, Asians and their variants, etc. There are common grounds, but always suspicions, misinterpretations, and resentments—because we are people.

What about racism? Am I a racist? Are we all racists? What is a racist? Is there reverse racism?

Let’s consider this: a bigot is someone who thinks or expresses intolerance, resentment, or superiority based on class, race, sex, or some social or biological category. Bigots justify and rationalize their conscious beliefs. A racist is someone who harbors or internalizes intolerance, resentment, or superiority based on class, race, sex, or some social or biological category; moreover, the person who is racist may not be aware of his intolerant or discriminatory thoughts or actions or of how his words or actions are perceived or interpreted by others as racist.

By these standards, who among us may cast the first stone? So, what’s the solution?

Not to be hyper-focused or narrow-minded, I’m in favor of compassion and behavior modification. When I do recognize my own tendencies toward intolerance, arrogance, or insensitivity (thankfully pointed out by God and other people), I take action to censor myself. I push myself to engage in and self-reinforce thoughts and words that are incompatible with intolerance and superiority—like compassion, empathy, forgiveness, sacrifice, compromise, and apology—to revamp my subconscious attitudes and expressions. Along with reinforcing more compassionate thoughts and words (by practicing them), I impose response costs upon myself when I catch myself in prideful, intolerant, or sarcastic thinking and expressions. These response costs include prayer, confession, and a deliberate curtailment of behaviors that denigrate others, even when they are not around (like telling off-color jokes, or expressing arrogant, prideful, or sarcastic opinions).

When I act or think in ways not commensurate with my overall desire to be godly and considerate, I force myself to “pay” with both inward and overt expressions of my penitence and commitment to change. For me, ten dollars a hit would be a bargain for continuing in my desecrations (although, considering my persistence, this could add up!). Instead, I fork over the response costs of confession, prayer, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, sacrifice, compromise, and apology. These all contribute to eventual inhibition and restraint. It is a process of growing up and treating others as I would want to be treated.

Racism? It’s pervasive and easily reinforced, even by the most subtle perceptions and assumptions. Fueled by negative feelings and perceived threats, confirmation of one’s beliefs is intractably reinforcing.

Reverse racism? No such thing, just as there’s no “reverse” reinforcement or “reverse” gravity. But there are forces that effectively counteract each other. The opposites of reinforcement are extinction, punishment, and response costs.

So… behavior modification for racism? Yes, this is one area where cognitive behavior modification does work.

However, people don’t seek therapy for their intolerance. Most of us want the world to change, and we want things done for us to make us healthier and happier. We balk when we are held accountable and asked to do the work.

Pay ten dollars each time I tell an inappropriate joke? My God, you should pay me each time you retell it! It could be my retirement fund.

Here’s some bottom-line simple psychological insight: if you like yourself, you’ll want other people to be more like you, and you’ll model for them, teach them, and encourage them. If you adore yourself, you’ll wonder why others can’t be more like you, and you’ll feel superior to them. If you dislike yourself, you’ll want to be like others, and you’ll regret that you are the way you are and have what you have. If you hate yourself, you’ll find fault with most people, but especially yourself.

Also, here’s some sage advice about conquering addictions. Every time you feel your insistent urge, send me ten dollars. (For those of you who are impatient, we can arrange “EZ pay” via the Internet.) I promise that you will soon tire of paying for this “cheap” therapy, and that it will positively affect your behavior.

And rest assured that I’ll pay some of this money monthly to Terry. He has grandchildren who need stuff.