With Black History Month upon us, the conversation around racism in America is especially prevalent. Combating racism in America isn’t a simple or easy task; there is no definitive solution. However, understanding the origins of racism and racist ideologies held by individuals is a step toward understanding how to talk about racism, and more importantly, how to identify it within oneself and others with the goal of combating the harm caused by racism. Racism is an ideology, not a mental illness, but self-awareness and understanding go a long way in minimizing its reach. With that in mind, here are three important concepts to understand regarding the psychology of racism:
- Social Learning Theory: Psychologist Albert Bandura developed this theory in the 60s, suggesting that children can learn simply through observation and modeled behavior. Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiment exhibited this by exposing children to adults who abused an inflatable clown doll. When introduced to the doll later, the children mimicked the behavior of the adults they’d seen attacking the doll. Much like the abuse of the doll, racism can be learned at a young age. If a child witnesses a parent, or any important figure in their life, commit a racist act or use racist language, that child is likely to learn and mimic that behavior. While this doesn’t excuse racism in adults, it illustrates just how easily racist ideas can be adopted at a young age, making clear the importance of combating racism during those formative years.
- Cognitive Dissonance: Developed by Leon Festinger in the ’50s, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when a belief they hold is inconsistent with another belief. This discomfort ultimately causes the person with conflicting beliefs to change one of their beliefs in order to stay consistent and avoid discomfort. Therefore, the person will believe whatever is easiest in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable. Cognitive dissonance often causes people to justify things that they don’t morally agree with, whether in themselves or other people. For example, when presented with evidence that a close friend has committed a crime, one might try to justify that crime or refuse to believe it because it conflicts with the belief that their friend is a good person. This kind of cognitive dissonance is often used to justify racism because it’s less mentally taxing to justify actions than to change a belief, whether about oneself or another person.
- Implicit Bias: Implicit bias, a phrase coined by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Tony Greenwald in 1995, is essentially another way of saying unconscious bias, meaning a belief or bias that someone is unaware they hold. For example, if a woman walks home alone at night and is more afraid when a black man walks behind her than a white man, it is likely due to an unconscious belief she holds about black men. In other words, it is due to her implicit bias. Unfortunately, this example isn’t far-fetched. In fact, a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association found that black boys as young as ten years old were more likely to be mistaken as older than white peers of the same age. This led to them being more likely to be exposed to police violence when suspected of a crime. Furthermore, when tested for either prejudice or unconscious dehumanization, police officers who were unconsciously dehumanizing were more likely to treat black children in custody violently. It was the police officers’ implicit bias rather than an explicit prejudice that caused them to be more violent. This kind of implicit bias is often the cause of stereotyping. Even people who don’t consider themselves racist can have implicit bias and unconsciously contribute to racist behavior.
The realities of racism can be difficult to talk about but breaking down the psychology behind it can make it both simpler to understand and easier to talk about. Whether it be through being a good role model or simply being aware of our own cognitive dissonance and implicit bias, each of us can make a difference by being aware of the consequences of our thoughts and actions, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.