The Crab in the Barrel syndrome: I Beg to Differ

Dr. Alwin Spence

One of the easiest explanation of the disagreement Blacks have with Blacks is that Blacks are like crabs, in a barrel, and the minute one tries to get out of that barrel to new heights, to the new sunlight, the others concertedly drag down the upward bound crab.
I beg to differ, if this is the explanation of why Blacks do not get along with one another.
Frankly speaking, we get along. Maybe there is room for improvement, and so are most things. But let me accept this as having a little truth in it. The rest of it is pure humor, and this article intends to put a smile on your face as you read this Black History Month.
Let us picture a group of crabs in a barrel, it is dark inside and under normal conditions crabs do not live so close to one another, the length of their feet does not permit that closeness. So one crab begins to crawl up the barrel, and this is not an easy task. Recognizing this upward movement, instinctively one other crab with similar intention to get out, to reach for the top, holds onto the leader.
Another holds on to the second crab until a chain is formed. The weight of the second, third, and forth crabs obviously drags down the first crab. Other attempts are made, with similar results, and they all remain in the bottom of the barrel. Crabs are crabs, and there is no Brother Anancy to solve the problem for them.
In the case of the crabs, the assumed pulling down is a physical one, they are holding on to one another, as all of them inadvertently and desperately want to get out of the barrel. So the physical holding on is not done with malicious intent. To think that way is to accord intelligence to the crab whose brain is extremely limited, not able to reason.
Let us look where the analogy breaks down.
Blacks, as a homogeneous outgroup, are in an imaginary barrel. Blacks perceive this barrel thing because they believe that we are all put there by someone who is more powerful. Consequently, there is the urge to climb out of the outgroup and join the ingroup at the top. Great aspiration.
In the ingroup, individuals are all different, but the outgroup members are all alike. So there is a burning desire to demonstrate that Blacks are not alike. In this psychological barrel, blacks find themselves at the bottom and are made to feel there’s an imaginary oneness. This is an imposition concept of alikeness. Blacks must reject this concept of alikeness. So the race is on, to show that each one is different, and it is because of this felt difference that we, unlike the crab, compete to get out.
So when one Black person tries to climb up the wall to prosperity in education, career promotion and power, the competitors are up in arms and will willfully drag or cause the other to be dragged down. This action is the result, not of instinct as in the case of the crab, but by the reasoning of a warped mind. There is no physical holding, there is a plan which often is well executed.
To mention a few of the psychological drag downs: If you are from a particular place, something is wrong with that place, which will be perceived to minimize one’s success. Your degree is minimized because it was obtained at a 3rd rate University. Cesar swims the Rubicon, so it’s just a stream. No achievement. I can do that also. Or even shades of blackness may set you apart.
Likewise there is the magnification of one’s position in order to give the impression that one is no longer languishing at the bottom of the barrel. You see, the White perceived ingroup sees blacks as the same; at times this false elevation is brought down through verbal expression and bad grammar. But in the human barrel, there are tiers or levels. So the drag down is not as simple as that of the crabs. And remember there is no dragging down on the part of the crabs. In this psychological barrel the pull down is in all directions, depending on the tier you fall in.  Not only is there intentional pulldown from the bottom there is push down from the top. How can you compare this complete behavior of Blacks with that of the simple crab.
Crabs do not deserve this similarity and so as such I apologize to them. The black on Black relationship is much more complex. Respect must be shown to the crabs that want to leave the bottom of the barrel with the help of another. For Blacks, bringing another down means you automatically move up. The more I make you look bad the better I look. This won’t get you out of the barrel, it will make your place in the bottom permanent.
The Black Relationship is more Complex
First of all we, as Black people, are not in any psychological barrel. To see ourselves in this group is to feed into the white made stereotype that we are homogeneous, all alike. Therefore it is one treatment for all. We all get stopped by the police too often. We all are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. We are made to feel as part of an outgroup. Don’t fall for this.
As one who is in that barrel where all is supposed to be alike, we cringe when one crab is beginning to crawl out. If we are all alike why should one leave, so it is pulled back down. The mistake we make is that we believe that we are all alike. That’s what the white man says, and that’s how he wants us to behave, as this will make for continued easy control.
Our focus should not be on the crab crawling on the wall to get out of the barrel. It should be on oneself. How can I become the best I can as an individual?
When you left the islands, you came to improve yourself educationally, financially, socially and otherwise. Your focus was yourself, it was not the group. Whether it is Blacks as a group, or Jamaican, Trinidadian or Bajan to name a few groups. It was not to be a better Jamaican or black person. It was to be a better you. So let’s once again shift from that outgroup stereotype and get back to the individual. Take care of you first and the group will take care of itself.
This may seem the very antithesis of what we have been preaching the “I” or the “we”, which comes first. There is too much of a preoccupation with John and Mary as part of the group who are doing well. This preoccupation often leads to poor self-worth. Look on your own unique successes, step by step. One acknowledged success leads to more success. The focus away from the self may lead to envy and self-hate. Research shows that when you work for you, you accomplish more for you than when working as part of a group.
So where do we go from here?
The stronger the individual, the stronger the group; it starts with the individual. The crab in the barrel situation does not adequately explain Black on Black behavior. It is too simplistic. It assumes that we are all alike. Wrong, we are not.
We are alike just as two white people are alike by the color of their skin, apart from that each is a very unique individual.
Dr. Alwin Spence is a Professor of Psychology at Concordia University.