Insight News

Feb 09th

The Psychology of Racism and The Right to Be Stupid (Part II)

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In last week’s article, I began to address the psychology of racism and the “stupid” decisions that people make because of their adherence to pro-racists beliefs.  In Part Two of this article, I will continue to discuss the psychology of how racism is created, destructively maintained, and overcome in our personal and political lives.

Racism is defined as the belief that there are inherent differences among people based on traits and capacities that can be entirely attributed to their race.  As a consequence, different treatment of ‘those people,” is both socially and legally justifiedRacism, in my opinion is just plain stupid.  Unfortunately, as my husband would say --it is our American- right to be stupid. 

Most researchers have demonstrated that racism begins to form between the ages of five to seven, but tends to crystallize around age eight.  Racist beliefs become more deeply entrenched by the time one reaches early adolescence.  Like other types of mental illness, life events can serve as protective factors against the development of racism.  Additionally, life events can create risk factors that increase the likelihood of someone developing racist attitudes.  For example, if you grow up in a home where you have multicultural friends and neighbors who are loved and respected by you and your family, that experience would be protective in nature—and obviously bolster your ability to fight racism.  On the other hand, if you grow up in a home where everybody you know is racially similar and the exposure that you have to culturally different people is negative, then you are more at-risk of becoming a racist.

One of the first indicators of racism is how, if given a choice, people will use their power to make decisions that deny opportunities to others based on race.  Often, as has been proven by researchers such as Dr. Judy Devine (at the University of Wisconsin) or Dr. Jack Dovidio, (at Columbia University), people openly make those decisions when it is socially safe or palatable to do so.  If people can “hide” behind other more socially acceptable explanations to provide cover for their racism, they will make pro-racist statements and decisions.  These trends and patterns are known as “micro-aggressions” and occur to racial minorities on an insidious, daily basis.  For example, when the shock-jock radio talk-show host “Imus” called the black girls from the Rutgers basketball team “nappy headed hoes,” that was a micro-aggression.  He was safe to spew out racial epithets for years—unchecked.  Consequently, he expected no ramifications to his statements when he made them.  Recently, Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, was called out on his (and his family’s) lifetime patronage of a camp named “N---er head.” Someone painted over the sign when the social climate no longer permitted this micro-aggression to be acceptable.

Another sign of racism is that we tend to make negative attributions about ethnic minorities, but make exceptions when the same behaviors are committed by non-ethnic minority groups.  For example, let us discuss raising the ceiling limit for the national debt.  When President Obama made the proposal to do so, his decisions were perceived by some to be “unreasonable and inexcusable.”   Nonetheless, when a similar action was requested by - and granted for his predecessors - (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan) who were all white, those same people assumed the request by these “white” presidents as being “reasonable and excusable.”  Thus, the pattern of accepting one decision as being “alright” and the other similar decision as being “not alright” is indicative of racism.  Finally, when we attribute negative traits to a black person, but turn around and attribute positive traits to a white person--that is racist --plain and simple. 

There is also an aspect of racism that is held within minority groups.  This construct is known as “internalized racism.” Internalized racism is the personal (conscious or subconscious) acceptance of the dominant society’s racist views, stereotypes, and biases towards one’s own group.  In a future article, I will discuss the stages of ethnic identity development and their impact on racism, but for the sake of this conversation, it is important to realize that in America, there is a general pressure to concede, “all white people are superior.”  This belief is recognized first in early childhood when children begin to see “white” as better.  Most of us are familiar with the work of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose famous “doll studies” were used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision, to prove that racial segregation did not lead to separate, but equal rights or outcomes.  In the study, children were given a choice of playing with one of two dolls (one was white, the other black).  Most often, the children selected the “white” doll.  The study was recently replicated in a 2005 award-winning documentary film entitled “A Girl like Me” by a young woman, Kiri Davis.  Again, 17 out of 21 black children preferred the “white doll.”

The belief that “white is superior” is in our language and our rhetoric.  We say “black-mail” to indicate a negative type of mail, or “black magic” to indicate evil or sorcery.  In our society, even a lie becomes all right if it is a “white lie”.  Additionally, the belief in white superiority becomes even more entrenched during adolescence and early adulthood.  Thus, the development of pro-racists beliefs  are  later seen in a stage of ethnic identity development call “Conformity” or “Pre-Encounter” when folks (ethnic minorities and white majorities alike) hold perspectives that white American, majority culture values, appearances, practices, perspectives, and lifestyles are indeed “preferred” and “better than” those held by other groups.  Politicians such as Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, and Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas are often put into this category. 

The dissonance or confusion lies in the fact that although their skin is dark and they are physically black, Herman Cain and Clarence Thomas hold value systems that are predominately shared by the white affluent majority—not the poor, working class, or ethnic minority groups from which they may have come.  Thus, these leaders are often perceived as “conservative or conformist”-- which, of course, is a code word for “racist.”   Therefore, when these politicians are “conveniently black,” they use their blackness to make white racists feel “alright” about being racist.  Ironically, Herman Cain’s recent rise to fame in the Republican party debate is fascinating because although he has out-polled his competitors, he continues to be “invisible” when it comes to getting props as a legitimate, viable presidential candidate. While on one hand he is “acceptable,” on another hand, he is not.  Those of us who are struggling to recover from racism, especially our white brothers and sisters, must not fall into the trap of using racial reasoning to validate our endorsement of stereotypes.  The trap goes like this:   “I agree that the poor are lazy and that there is no racism in America because black guys like Herman Cain and Clarence Thomas said it-- so I must not be racist.”  To avoid the trap, we simply must remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "Don’t judge people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Unfortunately, determining an individual’s character is not very easy.  We do not always know a person’s character until their character is tested.  When it comes to racism, people can “say” one thing and “do” another.   Psychologists have identified processes that are referred to as “implicit” and “explicit” biases.  Implicit bias is the type that is covert, under-cover and not fully recognizable- even to the individual.  Explicit biases are those to which you hold full awareness.  Psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, proposed that as human beings, some of our memories, beliefs, and associations are not accessible to our own awareness, yet can influence our attitudes and behaviors. Thus, they developed a measure (Implicit Associations Test) that allows us to understand those attitudes that cannot be measured through explicit self-report methods.   They contend that due to a lack of self-awareness or a due to a desire to appear “socially unbiased,” using their test, people who would normally say that they aren’t racist (or sexist, or classist for example), can find out that they actually  hold strong biases against people based on their race. To check out how you fare in the areas of implicit (unconscious)bias, you may take the tests at home by logging into a website:

Because of the destructive nature of unconscious and conscious racism, many multicultural mental health providers have even gone so far as to purport that “racism” should be classified as a mental illness in our Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM-IV) -- the book we use to define all types of mental disorders ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder!  In this case, racism would be comparable to other types of mental disorders.  As is the case of most severe mental illnesses, people who have them, often do not always know that they are not well at the time.  For example, if you are experiencing a delusion that you are Jesus, it is unlikely that someone can convince you otherwise.  Thus, racist people rarely recognize that they are racist.  Just as all other mental illnesses have a course, an age of onset, a prognosis, and a set of diagnostic criteria, so could we describe and classify racism.  Knowing how racism begins and how to identify racism in oneself are among the first steps to letting it go.  In Part Three, I will conclude the discussion of this topic by further addressing the factors that maintain racism and how they may be eliminated.

BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., L.P. is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice and serves as President of Brakins Strategic Initiatives Consulting and Psychological Services. Brakins Strategic Initiatives (BSI) Consulting & Psychological Services has the mission of “providing excellent, culturally competent consulting and mental health services to meet the needs of children, adults, families and organizations.”  Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya warns that this column should in no way be construed as constituting a therapeutic relationship through counseling or advice.  To forward a comment about this article or to make an appointment, please contact Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya by email @ This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by telephone at 612-839-1440.






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