Are We Born Racist?

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

The Top 10 strategies for reducing prejudice (Part I)

First, three strategies to achieve the self-insight needed for change.

My favorite all-time show? Animal Planet's The Most Extreme.
My second favorite all-time show?  The Funniest Commercials of the Year.

You see a trend... countdowns. This is the time of year for countdowns, moreover, and thus the topic for this holiday's blog post was thus, well... written.

What are the top ten strategies for reducing prejudice and improving intergroup relations?

#10: Travel (somewhere that challenges your worldview).

The word "prejudice" can literally be broken down into "pre-" and "judgment." Aptly, much of prejudice stems from our pre-judging other people's habits, customs, clothes, ways of speaking, and values. We often do this with no basis for the judgment other than the fact that they (the customs, values, food, etc) are different from our own. As this blog reminds us, the world doesn't come with one "Truth" or one "Reality." Rather, what we call Truth is very often a social construction that differs across cultures (this is an issue I explore at length in this article).

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When we are confined to a single culture, it's incredibly difficult to see that one's way is not the only way, that one's "truth" is not the only possible way in which things are done. I vividly remember the experience of traveling in Beijing 20 years ago, on the hottest day of the year, and discovering that one could simply not find cold drinking water anywhere (this is no longer true). Hot tea, I learned, was the answer to scorching thirst. It was a relatively minor event, but the experience helped me not scoff in disbelief at people's diverse taste preferences from then on. It helped me realize that there is nothing biological or innate about the need for a cold drink on a hot day, or for the "naturalness" of any of the habits or customs we espouse. There is no better way to be convinced of this than to go to a country where millions of people are doing something different from you and, you --not them--  are the oddball. Try fried grasshoppers in Thailand, or haggling for the price of your weekly groceries in Ivory Coast. If your budget doesn't allow you to go far, try this book.

#9: Take a course on prejudice.

Part of the reason that I write this blog is to help disseminate what psychology can offer us about processes related to prejudice and stigma. This knowledge forms, quite simply, the basis for the introspection that each of us needs to successfully challenge deeply rooted negative attitudes and stubbornly entrenched biased behavior patterns. If there were ever a domain where the axiom "knowledge is power" is true, prejudice and stigma is it. A course on prejudice, for example, will likely cover unconscious bias-- the ways in which we can be prejudiced due to processes that happen outside of our awareness. A course on prejudice can help not only convince you that unconscious bias exists, but by makng you aware of it, will help you bring it to the realm of the conscious where you can address it. If you are the target of stigma, learning about how stereotypes affect us gives you a powerful tool to understand your feelings, and give you a sense of the larger societal processes impacting you.

A study by Laurie Rudman, Richard Ashmore, and Melvin Gary in 2001 showed that students who had enrolled in a prejudice and conflict seminar showed significant reductions in their levels of prejudice (both implicit and explicit) compared to a similar group of students who took a research methods course. This study reminds us that our biases are malleable: learning about them can give you the self-insight and motivation you need to undertake the journey of change.

#8: If you value egalitarianism, recognize that unconscious bias is no more "the real you" than your conscious values.

In a 2000 episode of Dateline called "Pride and Prejudice", Stone Phillips asks viewers whether they would be prepared to take a test to prove that they are not prejudiced. That test is the Implicit Association Test, which you can take online.

Yet implicit in Phillips' own statement iis the assumption that somehow, your implicit or unconscious biases reveal "the real you" -- how you really feel about X or Y group despite your best, superficial efforts to hide it. This assumption is incredibly detrimental for improving intergroup relations. Why? The assumption that prejudice and egaltarianism is an all-or-none proposition (i.e., one is either prejudiced, or one is egalitarian) makes the possibility that one may think or do something stereotypical very threatening, precisely because it would reveal one's true nature. This threat is particularly strong among people who strongly value egalitarianism, since egalitarianism is likely to be part of their self-concept. In a recent study by Nicole Shelton, Jennifer Richeson, Jessica Salvatore, and Sophie Trawalter, Black and White volunteers were asked to talk about race relations. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the more egalitarian the White partners were, the less their Black partners liked them! This and other research suggests that people who value egalitarianism, in an effort to communicate their fair-mindedness and not trip up, spend so much mental energy monitoring their behavior that they then have less mental resources for the actual interaction at hand. This state of affairs comes from a mindset in which egalitarian values are invalidated by automatic cognitions. Yet, these coexist among many people.

In a previous blog entry, I outlined a study that found that under conditions of cognitive load (when you are mentally busy doing mutliple tasks), people were more likely to label a Black child as "aggressive" than they were a White child. People often interpret this finding as evidence that people, deep down, really are prejudiced, but I hasten to point out the other side of that coin: when people were NOT under cognitive load, the ratings of the Black and White child did not differ. At all. And this finding is just as "real" as the finding for cognitive load.

Are We Born Racist? (Beacon Press)
The question is not, "are you prejudiced, or not?," but rather, "when are you more or less likely to show prejudice vs. egalitarianism?" And knowing the boundary conditions of our weak points helps us address them better.

You can find strategies 5-7 here.

You can find the top four strategies here.

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

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