The Psychology of Racism

psychology of racism discrimination
Photo courtesy of Unseen Histories on Unsplash

When I was 11-years-old, Carlos was my best friend. We were inseparable. We rode bikes, played video games, watched movies and listened to music. Our favorite activity was shooting BB guns, which led to some occasional broken windows and disciplinary challenges, at least on my end.

We never even thought about the fact that I had a mixed-race ethnic background and Carlos was black. Like other kids, we were exploring the world with curiosity. We were just beginning to understand what the terms “prejudice,” “racism,” and “discrimination” even meant.

We were more focused on learning who we were, who other people were, how the world worked, why adults did stupid things, and where we could get better BB guns.

We grew up in a time when there were no cell phones, social media, or Internet access. The Watts riots were long over, the Black Panther party had made their stand, and we were taught that “all people are created equal.”

But racism was still very much alive.

We were too young and naïve to understand its scope or how bad it was. There were media reports of racism, but its true ugliness oftentimes stayed hidden because there were no cell phones with video recording technology or an internet that focused the discriminatory light of our country onto the canvas of the world.

Our Biased Brains

So how does racism start?

No one is born a racist—it’s something that people develop because of a combination of environmental influences and how our brains work—or fail to work. I love our human brains and what they’re capable of, but unfortunately, they’re biologically programmed to cause certain problems.

One of the biggest problems is that our brains are overly-negative, which is something I talk about in the article Why We’re So Negative. Millions of years ago, we had to be excessively negative, because if we didn’t see things or people who were different from us as potential threats, we could get killed by other tribes or eaten by wild animals. This explains why we suffer from negativity bias, which is our tendency to focus on negative things, even when we shouldn’t.

We don’t have to worry about getting killed by other people or wild animals now that we’re well into the fourth stage of the industrial revolution, but our brains are still programmed to be overly-cautious about other people and to be afraid of things that are totally harmless.

Now combine this negativity bias with something called group attribution error. This is the tendency to believe that an entire group is bad just because one or a few members of a group hurt or disappointed us in the past.

A man who had one or two bad incidents with a black guy thinks all black people are bad. A woman who had problems with a Mexican home remodeling contractor now thinks all Mexican people are untrustworthy.

And let’s not forget about confirmation bias, which occurs when we only see things that confirm our beliefs and ignore things that go against them. Many peoples’ friends and family members taught them to believe that people of other races are bad.

Media coverage oftentimes associates people of color with crime and incarceration. These beliefs about people of color become programmed into the unconscious minds of many people, which cause them to unknowingly act out these hidden beliefs. Studies in social and cognitive psychology have revealed how these unconscious biases can hijack our behavior.

To determine how names affect how employers view potential job candidates, researchers responded to 1,300 jobs ads with more than 5,000 resumes. The researchers found that when they created mock job applicants with black-sounding names like Lakisha Williams or Jamal Jones, those job applicants got 50% less callbacks than mock applicants with white-sounding names like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.

Another experiment found that an iPod that was listed for sale online got 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers if it was held by a black hand instead of a white one. The most disturbing studies I found were related to how people responded to weapons or harmless objects that were associated with people of different races.

A study was done to determine how accurately people could tell the difference between guns or harmless objects, such as hand tools. A human face flashed before each object appeared. Sometimes the face was black and sometimes it was white.

In study scenarios where participants had to respond quickly, more people falsely saw a gun when the human face that came before the image was black instead of white.

In a first person shooter study, a male target appeared against a normal background and participants had to decide whether or not to shoot the target by pressing a “shoot” key or “don’t shoot” key. Participants in the study mistakenly shot unarmed black targets more often than unarmed white ones. They also mistakenly FAILED to shoot armed white targets more often than they failed to shoot armed black targets.

All of these studies suggest that race influences the development of unconscious bias. While these studies are controlled and no one is hurt, the problem becomes exponentially worse when bias and racism happen in the real world.

When people of color are senselessly hurt, shot, or killed as a result of bias and racism, lives are shattered, families are harmed, and the social and human costs are beyond calculation.

Overcoming Bias and Racism

So how do we overcome these unconscious biases?

1. Take a good look at yourself and identify your biases.

Some of us have major biases, some of us have minor ones, and some of us have biases that are somewhere in the middle. We must bring these biases from our unconsciousness to our conscious minds so we can address them and defeat them.

It’s important to not beat yourself up or make yourself feel guilt or shame. Realize that ALL of us have biases and be willing to identify the ones you have.

2. Talk about discrimination and racism openly and honestly.

These are very difficult conversations, especially in workplaces, homes, and at events where there are people of different races that we don’t know personally.

But they’re very necessary. If we don’t have them, bias continues to hide and thrive in the darkness of our unconscious minds and in the darkness of our societies. We have to create safe spaces in which people can discuss the uncomfortable realities of discrimination and racism openly and honestly.

3. Create bridges of acceptance.

We need to get to know people who are different from us. One of the best ways to do this is to create bridges of acceptance instead of walls of division.

To do this, first find people who are different from you and identify a few things the two of you have in common.

Learn about them. Hear their stories. Find the common ground you both share.

You’ll probably see that the two of you also have some differences. Acknowledge and accept those differences.

The key here is to use that child-like curiosity and acceptance that Carlos and I had 41 years ago when we were young kids.

It’s strange how we lose some of those powerful child-like qualities like curiosity and acceptance as we get older and life dumps its baggage into our unconscious minds. When we were kids, we weren’t tainted by racism, bias, animosity or hatred.

When we’re young, we don’t see color. We only see possibilities.

It’s only when we get older and are subjected to the media and other environmental influences that we unknowingly develop biases that stop us from connecting with other human beings and seeing their beauty and humanity. Look beyond skin color. Look for possibilities to connect and see the beauty in those who are different from you.

Light in Dark Places

I believe that racism and discrimination can be defeated, but it will take a lot of time and a lot of effort. I’ve seen the incredible things that we’ve invented in this country when we combined the power of people from different races and backgrounds.

I’ve seen the walls of racism and hate crumble to the ground during volunteer events in prisons. Volunteers from the technology sector used compassion and education to make incarcerated men feel like human beings once again.

I’ve seen people of ALL races help each other during times of extreme crisis. I’ve seen love, empathy and hope in some of the darkest places.

I believe compassion and empathy are stronger than bias and discrimination.

And I still believe LOVE is stronger than hate.