Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Starting the conversation

Taking about racism and prejudice is hard to do.

We need to have a long, open conversation about the role that race and racism play in today's society.

This new blog is aimed at informing that conversation with the latest insights that psychological science has to offer on the topic of prejudice and discrimination.

If the past is any guide, though, informing the conversation is going to be the easy part. The hard part will be beginning that conversation. Consider the following words from a wise person:

"Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

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If this is the first time you are encountering this passage, my guess is that you'll find these words persuasive and thoughtful. Who wouldn't want to have frank conversations in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance? What might surprise you, however, is the words that immediately preceded this passage:

"... in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Now many of us will instantly recognize the speaker as Eric Holden, the U.S. Attorney General, who uttered these words in a speech shortly after the inauguration of President Obama in 2009 (you can read that speech here). Sadly, these unfortunate words lit a firestorm so bright that they completely obscured Holder's invitation for frank conversation. Indeed, the swift and severe rebuke of Holder's statement may have had the opposite effect on people-- to remind us that in all things racial, one treads on highly explosive territory that is liable to blow up on you at any moment. That it may be better to insist that we do not notice race, that we are post-racial, that we are not racist.

Michael Richards
Michael Richards issuing apology
People cringe at the recent events surrounding Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose long-running radio show came to an abrupt end following an exchange with an African American caller over the use of racial epithets by black comics (you can see/hear a recording of that exchange here). Dr. Laura was already known as a direct, if not cruel, purveyor of personal advice, and already had her share of critics. Yet wading into that uniquely flammable territory of "things racial" was ultimately her downfall. Dr. Laura was making a point about the use of racial epithets by others, but the headlines blared that she was the one who is in fact racist. The message to us? Wade into this territory, and you too might be labeled a racist. You might be put into the same category as Michael Richards (see "Laugh Factory Incident" here), Don Imus (see sections 4, 5 and 6 here), or Mel Gibson(see sections 6.4 and 6.5 here). Even more threatening is the idea that if we admit to thinking about race, it may mean we harbor similar feelings as those expressed by these people.
Gibson and Grigorieva
Mel Gibson and Oksana Grigorieva

Yet, if we insist that we are not racist, that we don't even notice skin color, there IS no conversation about race to even begin. We thus remain silent, with feelings of anger and shame and confusion swirling around the silence.

My colleagues Jason Marsh, Jeremy Adam Smith, and I have just published an anthology entitled "Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology." This anthology examines the complicated issues surrounding race and racism from multiple perspectives, and offers advice on how to achieve the egalitarianism so many of us genuinely strive for. Among the findings we showcase in this book is that it is next to impossible not to notice race. Among the questions we address is whether this makes us racist.

Are we doomed to discrimination despite our best intentions?

This blog is meant as a continuation of the book.

Are We Born Racist? (Beacon Press)
AWBR
I encourage you to read the book, and this blog, and to start the conversation.

You can follow me on Twitter.

 

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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