• It’s disingenuous to celebrate diversity in America without also confronting racism.
  • Individual factors like personality, in-group bias, insecurity, and fear can fuel racial prejudice.
  • But racism is about more than psychology; it’s about society.
  • To achieve equality, people need to tackle structural racism as well as personal prejudice.

Diversity can be celebrated all year round, not just on dedicated months, but it’s naive to celebrate diversity without also talking explicitly about racism and prejudice. Otherwise the evidence shows that our country’s deep social inequalities will just be perpetuated. A famous 2016 study revealed that majority-white high schools tended to commemorate Black History Month by educating students about the extraordinary accomplishments of Black Americans, and abstractly celebrating “diversity” through pre-packaged materials from Target (let’s call this BHM-Lite). 

Black-majority high schools, on the other hand, also educated students about heroic African-Americans, but they didn’t sanitize the historical context of what was required for these notable people to achieve their goals in repressive, hateful climates. According to the study, BHM-Lite produced a student body less likely to identify racial prejudice and take antiracist action. 

I’m definitely not qualified to write anything authoritative on the subject of race in the United States, but I am passionate about exposing biases, including my own, and I’ve been in the same rooms with a lot of racist white people. So let’s take a shot at this.

Individual Factors That Fuel Racial Prejudice

Why might individuals with one skin color feel biased against people of another skin color? Psychologists point to a number of reasons:

In-group bias: Humans have an inborn tendency to favor their own group over other groups, probably because our ancestors felt safety in numbers. This instinct leads to in-group favoritism and often out-group discrimination. Studies have shown that humans are prone to forming groups based on anything at all, from their favorite sports teams (obviously) to whether people overestimate or underestimate a random number of dots flashing on a screen (seriously). Groups don’t even have to be in competition for resources in order to draw sharp lines between them. This is called the minimal group paradigm

When people belong to a group, a few interesting things happen in the interest of sparing themselves some cognitive labor:

  1. They start to believe they’re better than outgroup members.
  2. They become more critical of outgroup members.
  3. If an ingroup member misbehaves, they attribute the bad behavior to the individual or to a situational variable. If an outgroup member misbehaves, they attribute the bad behavior to the group. In other words, they see that behavior as a stable negative group characteristic, not as a one-off. As one article states, “A hallmark of intergroup biases is the tendency to individuate members of one’s own group but process members of other groups categorically.”
  4. Ingroup members are more helpful and compassionate toward each other than toward outgroup members.
  5. The more time you spend with your ingroup, the more favoritism you will show them.

Brain scans show that people actually gain positive self-esteem from their group memberships. This has to do with making one’s group membership an important part of one’s identity. Research suggests that the more your identity is wrapped up in your group, the more you’ll favor your group and be prejudiced against the outgroup. 

Other race effect: When infants and children are fed a bland “face diet”, it can shape their ability to recognize people of other races. So racial segregation actually makes us less able to differentiate between faces, which is called the other race effect (ORE). Essentially, young brains see no reason to fine-tune their facial perception when they aren’t regularly exposed to diversity.  

Fear: White people might fear being in the minority or of losing their identity, power, and/or privileges if they give people of color more opportunities. This affective bias can take place in the amygdala within milliseconds of perceiving someone from another race. Plus humans have a tendency to fear that they’re going to lose something whenever there’s an alteration in the current state of affairs, which is called the status quo bias

Personal insecurity: Researchers have found several relationships between self-esteem and negative attitudes toward outgroups. For example, people who feel that their self-concept is being threatened are more likely to derogate an outgroup. When they do so, they can experience an infusion of positive emotions. But when people already have a positive opinion of themselves fresh in their mind, they express less outgroup discrimination.

Climate change: Yes, heat waves can increase prejudicial behavior

Stress: When people are stressed or under pressure, their unconscious biases are more likely to take over. This is due to cognitive overload and the automatic activation of stereotypes.

Privilege: People who have a lot also have a lot to lose. They can easily develop blindspots about other peoples’ lack of privilege, aka advantage blindness.

Mental illness: Some psychiatrists argue that extreme racism should be classified as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM) because it can be a delusional psychotic symptom. According to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, “Extreme racism indicates psychopathology.” 

Confirmation bias: The human brain likes to be proven right, so we’re always looking for proof of our own opinions. This holds true for racial stereotypes as well. 

Personality: In the 1950s, Theodor W. Adorno characterized the “authoritarian personality” as a preference for simplicity over complexity and tradition over unconventionality. Authoritarian personalities are drawn to the caveman framework of “us=good” and “them=bad”. Later psychological research explores the personality dimension of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), characterized by low openness to experience and conscientiousness, both big 5 personality traits. Openness to experience is associated with less prejudice and greater tolerance.

Social dominance orientation. Some psychologists have identified a personality variable called social dominance orientation (SDO) which is characterized by a willingness to accept intergroup inequality. 

Belief in a just world. The just-world theory suggests that some people need to believe that they–and the world–are fair, to the point of dishonesty and victim-blaming.

Morals/values: Research suggests that certain people value the five moral foundations in ways that also align with their political views. For example, evidence indicates that American conservatives tend to prize authority/respect and ingroup/loyalty more than liberals. This may mean that conservatives give more importance to the social hierarchy than to fairness/reciprocity (which liberals value more). Studies also suggest that people high in “other-concern” and tolerance tend to feel more positively toward outgroups.  

Lack of empathy/compassion: When people feel empathy for someone else’s pain, they tend to act in prosocial ways. But neural research shows that members of ingroups respond with less empathy to members of outgroups. They have more difficulty sharing an emotion of sadness or even physical pain with someone outside of their tribe. 

The Problem with Individualizing the Causes of Racism 

After having explored some of the reasons that people may act in a racially biased manner, let’s now set them aside. Because here’s the thing: By focusing primarily on individual responsibility, we can overlook the way culture and society perpetuate racism. This is what scholars call the prejudice problematic.

Some Americans might prefer to talk about individual blame instead of systemic blame. They can wrap their heads around other peoples’ minds, but find it much harder to grasp other peoples’ “minds-in-context”. But racism doesn’t exist without society’s constant reinforcement. In fact, the very concept of race was created by and is sustained by American culture/society at large. 

It seems amazing to contemplate now, but people didn’t always categorize groups by skin color. By ethnicity, religion, nationality, yes, but not melatonin. The concept of “race” as we know it today was invented in the 1600s, around the time New World plantation owners began relying on the labor of enslaved Africans. People with money and power needed to invent a new hierarchy to justify their incomprehensible actions, a hierarchy that remains completely arbitrary but also salient to this day because it’s based on a clear physical distinction: skin color. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

After racism became codified into law, social institutions, and culture, it became everyone’s problem. It was “embedded in our everyday worlds”. Racism is a social construction that implicitly (if not explicitly) tells people who’s powerful and who’s not, who’s deserving of status and who’s inferior. And as an article in the journal Pediatrics stated last year, it’s the “root cause of social inequities”. 

So calling racial prejudice exclusively an individual problem lets people with racist beliefs off the hook. They can distance themselves from responsibility, deny the existence of racism, say they’re colorblind, champion “diversity”. They can stay in their segregated worlds, maintaining what Dr. Brian Lowery of Stanford University calls “herd invisibility”. They’re free to do any “psychological gymnastics” they want to evade facing deep structural issues, the suffering of people of color, and the fact of white privilege

A cultural-psychological approach harnesses the classic metaphor of racism being like the water in which a fish swims. “The solution to the problem of racism,” states one article, “is not to change the fish so that it can survive in toxic water, but instead to change the water the fish has to live in.” Confronting one’s personal racial prejudice is an important step, but it won’t accomplish much without concurrent social action. 

What to Do About America’s Baked-In Racial Prejudice

So what do we do about this? There are so many ways to fight racism! The web is full of manuals for antiracist action–and perhaps it’s time for Thriveworks to write one too. For now, we’ll focus on thinking, identity, and emotion. 

Studies show that the conflicts between in-groups and out-groups will dissolve if the dueling members develop superordinate goals. So if those with racial biases broaden their group membership to something like “humanity” or “Americans” or “people who like long walks on the beach”, then they can free themselves from those invented racial categories. Importantly, people can still identify with their subgroups. You don’t have to leave your culture behind when you flex your group memberships. But you can demote racial categorization. Group memberships aren’t set in stone. They’re proven to be dynamic and capable of activation and deactivation, depending on such factors as motivation, the time you spend in other peoples’ company, and your media ecosystem.

Studies also show that intentional “perspective-taking” can enhance someone’s empathy for other races. This is not hard; you just put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If the cast of the “Sex and the City” reboot can do it, you can too. 

Those of us who have benefited from privilege can experience the shame and complex emotions that come from knowledge, and still practice self-compassion, which can then be successfully channeled into empowerment and activism. But this is an existential issue for all of us, and avoiding it is a luxury no one can afford