The Psychology of Racism
Updated: Jun 9
The murder of George Floyd has swept the world, leading to endless protests, continued violence and global disgust. Racism is the virus on everyone’s lips. We watch the video of George Floyd being maliciously choked to death with difficulty and we ask how and why. The how behind how someone can do this is obvious. A hatred and fear of someone because of their complexion. Illogical but explained. But the why: that’s slightly less obvious. How can a human being be willing to kill another human because of their skin colour? It’s disgraceful, it’s vile and it’s difficult to comprehend. But now is not the time for us to be emotionally hijacked. It’s a time to understand. Many protesters are correct. As white people, we have the privilege of never fully understanding what it is like to be born disadvantaged because of what we look like. Racism is something that is deeply rooted in the history of the world, but that’s not an excuse for it to survive. It is a weed that won’t be destroyed easily. It needs to be burnt at its core. We all know how racism started: Greed, power and misinformation. We also know how to prevent it through the education of compassion and empathy. But what we don't understand is how we let it breathe. This post aims to explain how racism exists in the human mind and how we can kill it individually.
Negative Automatic Thoughts
We don’t have the time or resources to always stop and really think about our thinking. As a result, we develop what psychologists call automatic thoughts. These automatic thoughts are influenced by our genes, our childhoods and what we expose ourselves to everyday. However, we’re never taught about what are helpful and unhelpful forms of thinking and as a result, this increases the risk of negative automatic thoughts (NATs) developing. These NATs then play a huge role in our society because they have the potential to lead to dangerous behaviours, such as racist acts. Two of these negative automatic thoughts are overgeneralisation, and more importantly, labelling. It is within these thought processes that racism manifests.
Overgeneralising refers to applying one event or instance, to all events and instances. For example, I failed one test, so I’m now going to fail all of my tests. Automatically thinking like this then leads to the unhelpful behaviour of giving up on study, which, then leads to more problems. A path of destruction created by a simple automatic thought. In the context of racism, seeing one person of colour arrested on the news (remember how NATs develop through what we are exposed to) leads to you overgeneralising that all people of colour are criminals. Of course, when it's highlighted like this, it seems ridiculous. How could anyone be that stupid to generalise? But then think about it. If you ordered a takeaway and the food gave you food poisoning, would you order from that takeaway again? Most definitely not. Our brains overgeneralise all of the time and that isn’t the problem. This is an automatic response as a result of years of evolution. Make the world more predictable by filling in the blanks. The problem is that we’re not aware of these overgeneralisations and we let them govern our behaviours. We’re moving through life with a blindfold on. So remember, if one apple is rotten in a barrel, it doesn’t mean that all of the apples are rotten. Take notice when we use words such as everything, everyone, always and never. This then creates stereotypes, which then creates labels.
Labelling involves attaching associations to a person and using those associations as representations of who they are. The Chinese person who loves math rather than fishing, the Irish person who is an alcoholic rather than a great artist, and the black person who is good at basketball instead of a fantastic cook. Rather than seeing these people as individuals who have different interests and dislikes just like you and I, we see them as their dominant association. We label because we are obsessed with putting things into boxes, and again, this is not the problem. The problem is that we’re not aware of when we do this and this leads to certain American cops’ brains jumping from this person is African American to this person is dangerous. Influenced by labelling, guided by overgeneralisation. The results, as we have seen, are unfortunately fatal.
Are our Brains Racist?
Put simply, absolutely not. Our brains are extremely complex machinery that make sense of the world from what it has been exposed to before. It reads situations as best as it can and then fills in the blanks. Hence, we see someone, we categorise them based on what we can see, and the brain unconsciously fills in the blanks with overgeneralisation and labels. However, a study by Kurzban and colleagues in 2001 found that we are not dependent on categorising by race. In fact, the study demonstrated that it only took four minutes of exposure to alternative social categorisations such as same shirt colour for people to stop judging people by colour. Have a think about that. Only four minutes. Four minutes to bring unconscious biases to conscious awareness forever. Four minutes to judge people as individuals rather than their skin colour. And four minutes to destroy racism. Racism can be suffocated.
So What Can We do?
While it is not enough, it should be noted that racial discrimination has improved in the last century. Despite some activists refusing to believe it, it is socially undesirable to be openly racist. This is demonstrated through researchers stating that it is difficult to find openly racist people to study. However, systemic racism is an issue that continues to exist and it seems that change will be slow coming on a governmental level. Therefore, we need to see change at an individual level. Despite many thinking it’s helpful, telling yourself that you’re not racist does not improve the situation. That is simply repression. It’s not dealing with the problem. It’s ignoring it. The truth is that anyone who is less exposed to other cultures, which is lots of the Western world, overgeneralise, stereotype and label. This means that when you’re walking home late at night and you see an African American behind you, your brain will fill in the blanks and create dangerous situations in your head. But again, that is not the problem. The problem is not being aware of this bias and letting it decide how you act. While many will refuse to admit that this will be their reaction, it’s true. It’s an ugly consequence of our history but again, it’s true. So the first step is accepting our biases. We can’t change our thinking if we don’t acknowledge it.
Once we achieve this, the next step is to begin challenging these thoughts. Pick up on the generalisations, the labels, the stereotypes and correct them. And what is essential here is not always going the opposite way to correct the trend. If a black person is committing a crime, that doesn't mean you turn a blind eye to correct for racism. You still report the crime. The important lesson here is that you are reporting the crime because of the action they are committing, and not the colour of their skin or the unconscious biases that you have. Personal experience helps challenge these biases, which is why Universities are now rewarded for multiculturalism. The more you're exposed to different cultures and races, the less likely you are to generalise. But even if you don’t have exposure to a culturally diverse environment, ask yourself if you’re assuming that a person will act a certain way because someone of similar complexion did before (overgeneralisation), if the person in front of you is more than the regular attribute you attach to them (labelling) and most importantly, if these thoughts and biases are affecting my behaviour. Again, the issue is not the terrible thoughts that enter your head. The issue is if you let them control you and your behaviour. You are not racist because you have negative and biased thoughts. You are racist when these thoughts control your behaviour.
Yes, it is correct that nobody is born racist. But it is also correct that we are still a long way from changing society so that people aren’t influenced to categorise by race as they grow up. Take chess for example, Black against white. Therefore, the best weapon we have right now is two forms of education. The first is to begin pinpointing aspects of our society that promote racial differentiation, which is something that society is currently targeting. But this will take time. Fortunately, the second form of education is identifying and correcting our biases, and this, thankfully, can be done right now.
The horrible actions of George Floyd’s killer comes from one of two places. Either he consciously believes in racism, which demonstrates an extreme lack of intelligence or mental health issues, or else he let his unconscious NATs take over. Either way, he should be found guilty. We, as human beings are allowed to make mistakes but we are not allowed to take away someone else’s ability to make mistakes. We have a responsibility as human beings to see all human beings as equal. Not black, not African American, but human, and this takes practice. But we can’t practice it if we don’t understand it. Education is key, education is progress and education is change. Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.