Inside Books: Mary McRae On Race and Culture in Group Dynamics

Mary B. McRae is an associate professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Applied Psychology.McRae teaches Group Dynamics, Cross-cultural Counseling, Program Development and Evaluation and offers a seminar in Counseling Psychology at the masters and doctoral level. Her latest book, written with Ellen Short is Racial and Cultural Dynamics in Group and Organizational Life: Crossing Boundaries (Sage Publications, 2009).

Talk a little bit about your research and how it has evolved.

Mary McRae : I had been involved in doing group work for several years and had been particularly taken by the experiential model of group relations work, often referred to as the Tavistock model, which is based on psychoanalytic and systems theory.

My oldest brother, Frank McRae, was murdered in 1997. He was a barber in Bedford Stuyvesant, the type of barbershop you see in a Spike Lee movie with old men telling stories. My brother was very proud of the fact that his baby sister was a professor at NYU, so when I took my son there for a haircut everyone stopped to hear him boast about me and challenge my son with what he was learning in school. Frank and I are children of sharecroppers. He did not finish school because he was needed in the fields to harvest the crops; I was fortunate to be too young to have to work in the fields. The Daily News ran a story about my brother’s murder that hailed him as a fixture in the community, but also implied that because he was going into an after hour social club, he must have been involved in some illegal activity. In working class black communities social clubs serve as a way of maintaining social connections, a place to relax after a hard week’s work. White clubs don’t suffer from the same stigma. His death made me think more about my own work and how stereotypes about race, class and gender impact our daily lives and relationships, the unspoken assumptions about “the other” that influence our behavior in conscious and unconscious ways.   At that time I was also contemplating next steps in my work, what was my passion and how could I pursue it? My area of research and work is on racial and cultural dynamics in groups. So I decided to use this multicultural lens with the Tavistock model, which allows me to create a temporary institution that explores racial and cultural dynamics as an integral part of it’s functioning.

How did you apply this to your own work?

Mary McRae: In 1999 I conducted the first Group Relation’s conference at NYU, entitled “Race and Class in Group and Organizational Life.” It was dedicated to my brother. I wanted to create a space where people could talk about difficult feelings; especially as they relate to intergroup differences.

In this conference we learned that while talking about race and class was difficult for both the participants and the staff, we often found ourselves saying things that were not always politically correct, struggling with difficult interactions and feedback, yet staying and acknowledging the value of the experience and learning. This was the beginning of the Group Relation’s Conference series at NYU. Every spring, we create these temporary experiential educational institutions, providing opportunities to study leadership, authority, and power, with a special focus on differences in group and organizational life. The themes have been race and class, ethnicity and culture, foreigners within borders and we have worked with sexual identity, age, disability, language, and other differences.

In 2002 I started videotaping groups during the weekend conferences and experimenting with different configurations of small self-study groups. In one conference with the theme of the complexity of color and culture, we separated the members into seven small self-study groups (all people of color, predominantly Latinos, all white, predominantly white, predominantly gay and lesbians, rainbow or mixed group, predominantly Middle Eastern and European). In this conference we learned that the people of color, Latinos, and gay and lesbian groups found power in numbers, something that many rarely experienced in their work and educational institutions. This experience of power gave many minority members voice, leadership, and authority in their groups as well as enhanced awareness of how they are authorized by others when in roles of leadership.

How did you come to write Racial and Cultural Dynamics in Group and Organizational Life: Crossing Boundaries?

Mary McRae: My book is a compilation of years of study on racial and cultural dynamics. The book includes a lot of transcript data drawn from the annual group relation’s conferences.   It was written with my former doctoral student, Ellen Short, who worked with me as a teaching assistant and as a consultant in many of the conferences at NYU. We talked about our frustration with textbooks that usually had only one chapter on working with multicultural groups. We wanted a text that included racial and cultural issues when discussing group development, dynamics, roles, and leadership. I had lots of videos and transcripts that spoke to the various topics we thought important to cover and that is how we decided to write the book.

We provide a number of examples to illustrate group formation, group development, ethical issues, social roles, leadership, power, authority, and we have one chapter to demonstrate what we think a mature group working with racial and cultural differences would look like. While the focus is mostly on racial and cultural differences, we include others such as social class, age, gender, language, and sexual orientation.

In the book we have case examples of racial and cultural boundaries that polarize group members into different camps. This is usually during the early stages of group development. As members get to know each other better they are less polarized. In one group an African American man talked about being accustomed to being attacked in groups, so he had come ready to do battle, stating that his heart was racing and he wished that people could see that he could be vulnerable. A gay man responded he was a gay child, who felt alone in the world, that he felt that he had to hide his sexual identity. In this same group a Jewish man talked about his discomfort with a young German woman in the group who seemed proud of her identity. An Asian woman talked about how the group influenced her to take up a stereotypical passive role, when it was not how she usually saw herself.   These are all examples of the power of group influence and how individuals manage given the context.   Leadership in these types of groups requires a level of multicultural competency, a capacity to accept that the experience of others is valid and to work collaboratively. Leaders also need to have a capacity to be vulnerable in the service of one’s own learning and the learning of the group.

What do people take away from your teaching gives insight into their experience in the workplace?

Mary McRae: Those who participate in the group dynamics course that I teach and in the annual Group Relations Conferences develop an understanding of boundaries, authority, role and task in group and organizational life. They develop skills in managing themselves and others in work roles when ethnocentricity and racial bias stand at the boundary between them. It helps people to ask the question: Is this about my race, ethnicity, religion, or social class or is this about personality or interpersonal differences? The question relates to the power and access to resources that often exists between groups. They also develop an awareness of multiple identities that each person has, with one becoming more salient than others in certain situations and context (i.e. race, gender, sexual identity). They develop the ability to identify and acknowledge the roles that they take up in groups and organizations and how this role enhances or impedes effective functioning. There is increased awareness of authority structures, who has authority and how are they authorized in their role, what are the relations between those with authority and those with less authority?    We explore how different cultural perspectives impact authority and authorization of roles in groups and organizations. There is an increase in the ability to recognize and manage hidden agendas, stereotypes, and unspoken assumptions about Western, Eastern, and African groups.

Final thoughts?

Mary McRae: Racial and cultural dynamics are an integral part of functioning in diverse groups. From a psychoanalytic perspective there is a pull to split between what is “like me” and “the other,” usually attributing positive aspects to self and one’s own group and negative aspects to the other. This is a rather basic concept, however, there is a complexity in working with diverse groups that is not often recognized. We use racial/cultural identity attitudes and cultural values as a way of exploring this complexity. For example, during the last presidential primary the press attempted to label Barack Obama as having racist attitudes because of his association with the minister of his church, Reverend Wright. The assumption was that all African Americans hold similar racial-cultural attitudes. The thinking was that Obama could not belong to a church and be at a different status of racial-cultural identity.

What we know is that there are many factors that influence racial-cultural attitudes such as age, religion, internalized messages about others, and historical relations between groups. Obama was in the precarious position of having to choose between his racial and spiritual family group and the broader U.S. constituency. In group relations work, we would describe Obama’s response as a ‘Janus-like,’ the capacity to look internally and externally simultaneously, being both the observer and the participant. His speech on race noted the biases and stereotypes that exist on both sides. As a Black man he could speak to experiences of racism, as a bi-racial person he could speak to positive experiences with a white grandmother who loved him and yet held racist beliefs.

It is the paradox of working with both sides that my work has forced me to examine and reflect on. It is what I find most difficult, yet most exciting.