05/20/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

The Black Chameleon: Success and Identity

Psychological well-being is tacitly assumed in those who are professionally, academically and socially successful, yet mental health professionals are seeing seemingly well-adjusted and successful black men who are saying "I don't know who I am." Educated in predominantly white, private or public schools, these men grew up being acutely aware of the stereotypes that others implicitly ascribed to them. They learned to manage the unconscious assumptions of their teachers and classmates while trying hard to meet parental expectations. They were so preoccupied with managing the fears and anxieties of those around them that they never developed an inner core of their own. They are social chameleons who never had a chance to just be.

Dr. Mark Snyder, a social psychologist who has done research on social chameleons, whom he refers to as high self-monitors, identifies the following key characteristics of social chameleons:

- They pay careful attention to social cues, scrutinizing others with keenness so as to know what is expected of them before making a response.

- In order to get along and to be liked, they try to be as others expect them to be. For example, they try to make people they dislike think they are friendly with them.

- They use their social abilities to mold their appearance as disparate situations demand, so that, as some put it, ''With different people I act like a very different person.''

In a study on social chameleons, Dr. Martin Kilduff, Professor of organizational behavior at the University of Cambridge, found that chameleons move into central positions within social networks and enjoy early promotions in their careers. According to Dr. Kilduff, chameleons tend to emerge as leaders because they are "constantly acting, putting on impressions, worrying about the front-stage, back-stage; it's about staging performances, being in the public eye, socially constructing [their] persona".

They win people over by assuming the characteristics of whomever they are dealing with. Social chameleons often succeed in unfavorable environments and can achieve unexpected heights in their careers. Because of their inconsistency and malleable core, social chameleons seem enigmatic to those with a more rigid core. According to Dr. Kilduff, traditional personality-type indicators aren't as useful in predicting the personality of a social chameleon. Since their behavior at any given time is dependent on their environment, it is hard to detect their innate personality-type. Dr. Kilduff notes some of the positive traits of social chameleons as follows:

[They] take an active stance when it comes to talking, they take the initiative, they provide help and they are happy to give it, without the obligation of having to return the favour.

Social chameleons introject the personalities of those around them and take on aspects of their identity. Their underlying emptiness and sense of neediness manifests itself through their co-dependent relationships and eagerness to accommodate others. They over-extend themselves to those who surround them and can be exploited by those closest to them. At points, they become overwhelmed with meeting everyone else's needs but their own. They tend to be sensitive to rejection and experience bouts of depression. Black chameleons who are saying "I don't know who I am" tend to be consciously or unconsciously less comfortable around blacks than whites.

The psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch first described this personality type in 1934 as the "as-if" personality:

The person gives the impression of a good adjustment to reality, but this is based on mimicry and identification with the environment. There is no single, integrated personality; instead, the person seems to shift with the tide of his or her surroundings. Similar to the narcissistic personality, the "as-if" personality shows inauthenticity, inordinate moral relativism, and a tendency to imitate idealized others; but such a person sequesters an aggression to a greater degree than does the narcissist.

In an incisive and penetrating analysis of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, psychologist Dr. Alvin Wyman Walker describes the moral relativism and hollow core of an extreme chameleon as follows:

The observation regarding the hollowness of his core, his chameleon-like quality, and his proclivity to assume whatever position necessary to please those with whom he is identified and dependent are important clues to Clarence Thomas' psychodynamic wellsprings.

Thomas read [Malcolm X] and briefly toyed with the notion of adopting a black nationalist posture. ...Clarence Thomas came down solidly on the side of prosperity and the prosperity he forged had the backing of largely white, conservative mentors who were inimical to the interests of African Americans.

It is highly unlikely that Clarence Thomas would have risen to the heights of a Supreme Court Justice had he not exhibited a chameleon's eagerness to please and willingness to do or say anything to win the approval of his conservative mentors. However, in Thomas' case his empty core was compounded by a painful sense of rejection by his mother and other African Americans, which underlies the hostility and internalized racism that he acts out by voting against African American interests every chance he gets. While Thomas' is an extreme case, studies that suggest 50% of African Americans have an anti-black bias (internalized racism) confirm some of what mental health professionals have been seeing.

Dr. Snyder notes that it is "the degree to which a person subscribes to this credo" that matters. His research shows that most people tend to be in the middle range and it is the extremes on either end that tend to have psychological issues. He notes that the high-monitors (chameleons) make good impressions, yet have less satisfying intimate relationships. And when chameleons get depressed, it is often triggered by failing at a social performance, like not making the team or not getting a part in a play.

Whereas, those on the other end of the spectrum with a strong sense of self who do not bend easily tend to suffer the "social costs of their rigidity." They become depressed when they feel like they have "violated their deepest values, such as being found a hypocrite".

A personality like Muhammad Ali would likely be on the other end of the spectrum from a chameleon like Clarence Thomas. Ali was so firmly committed to his core principles, that in 1967 he defied the US government and refused to be inducted into the US Army. His resistance cost him his boxing license for four of his peak performance years and stripped him of his heavyweight title. The US government was essentially unable to bend a 25-year-old Muhammad Ali. Had he capitulated and violated his core beliefs, the psychological blow to his identity would likely have been deeper and longer lasting than the difficulties he endured during those four years.

While there are social and professional advantages of having some chameleon-like qualities, chameleons without an inner core are vulnerable to bouts of depression and a sense of emptiness. Parents would be well served to cultivate a strong sense of cultural identity which can act as a "psychological buffer against the ravages of racism". When accomplished and successful black men are presenting with complaints of "I don't know who I am", we have to wonder if the psychic equilibrium that an authentic identity provides is the price they had to pay to succeed in this society.