Culturally Speaking

Challenging assumptions about culture, race, and mental health.

Why People Cling to Racist Ideas

The unspoken social order and racial healing through Afrocentric values.

Black woman

Successful Black people violate stereotypes.

I received an unprecedented firestorm of feedback after my recent post about colorblind ideology being a type of racism. The point of the article was to show how colorblind thought is a deficient philosophy that fails to see the value of people of color, implied by the very word "colorblind" itself.

Many Realize Colorblindness Does Not Work

My article went on to become one of the top five most read entries on the Psychology Today website, followed by ascending to the number one most emailed article. Something about the subject matter resonated with many — so much so that they felt the need to share it with others in their lives. I like to believe that I put words to something many have felt but did not know how to articulate.

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Feedback Steeped in Controversy

For those of you who sent positive feedback, I thank you. It always feels nice to be appreciated and to know that others have been helped by something I wrote. There were, however, a surprising number of negative comments as well, most of which were posted anonymously to the comment section of the article. I did consider leaving the remarks there to illustrate the widespread nature of racism in our country, but because of the obscene, anti-Semitic, and distasteful nature of the postings, they had to be removed. (I did save a copy of the posts in case any one would like to view them — at their own risk.)  I don't have the time to answer each remark individually, but I will summarize the remarks and comment on the major themes and interesting psychological dynamics at play, followed by suggestions for racial healing.

Wake-Up Call: Racism is Alive and Well

For those of you who believe that racism is a thing of the past, think again. I received dozens of notes from anonymous posters who felt the need to trumpet their hate for Black people, Jewish people, and other oppressed groups — freely using the n-word and any other insult that came to mind. Safely hidden behind the Internet's opaque digital wall, the negative sentiments that most people are socialized to keep to themselves spilled out for all to see. Good old-fashioned racism is alive and well, as many cling to the passé notion of a social order where Whites alone are at the top. In today's world, old-fashioned racists can no longer run around in white hoods, but they can spread hate from their personal computers. This type of attitude underscores the need for new ways of approaching our society's wounds surrounding race and ethnicity.

Anger Over Affirmative Action Programs

Many writers expressed anger about affirmative action programs, under the pretext that they personally have been unfairly discriminated against in hiring practices. What makes this so interesting is that there was no mention of affirmative action or any political policy in my article at all. People read into the article something they expected to see.

Clearly, affirmative action is a sore spot for many, which I do believe calls for a revisiting of these programs to make them more fair and useful. However, I do also understand that when one is passed over for a job, it's easier to blame affirmative action than acknowledge that your minority competitor may just have been a bit more qualified than you. It's hard to make sense out of being bested by someone who is considered to be on a lower rung of the social hierarchy. It doesn't fit the stereotype — what we all think we know — which brings me to my next interesting point.

Many people who sent hateful feedback made reference to my academic qualifications. When you consider stereotypes about Black people as unintelligent victims and drug-addicted criminals, it seems unfathomable that a Black woman could have an engineering degree from MIT, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and have been employed as a faculty member at an Ivy League school. My achievements sparked anger and jealousy in many because they are seen as a violation of the stereotype, or the proper social order. There is no way that a racist can imagine I might have earned all this from just a good brain and hard work. For that reason, many tried to make this "right" by addressing me in a disrespectful manner, using demeaning and sexist language, and expressing disbelief over my achievements. It's a broken logic that perpetuates hate: by pulling down successful people of color, racists think they pull themselves up.

An Afrocentric Perspective Can Facilitate Racial Healing

7 candles

The 7 principles of Kwanzaa

Everyone who expressed hate and negativity over my last post could benefit from learning something new − the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is an African American holiday that takes place in the seven days after Christmas and celebrates positive Afrocentric values. These principles run counter to racist ideology as they both celebrate the African American culture and embrace unity.  It is not a religious holiday, so it can be celebrated by people of any faith. And although it is an African American holiday, people of all races may celebrate it too.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following Afrocentric principles, as follows:

  1. Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain oneness in the family, community, race, and nation.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To assert ourselves in self-defining and dignity-affirming ways in the world.
  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community, share our problems, and solve them together.
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain businesses utilizing fair business practices, and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our communities and foster the possibility of great achievements through doing good in the world.
  6. Kuumba (Creativity): To always do as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  7. Imani (Faith): To believe that we can truly transform ourselves and the world for the better.

Kwanzaa stamp

1st Kwanzaa US postage stamp in 1997

Embracing some of the best elements of African American tradition is an example of how our society can benefit from multiculturalism to overcome racism and hate. All cultures have important values that can contribute to a better society, and it is in our communal best interest to discover and implement these hidden insights.

Learn more:

The Official Kwanzaa Website: www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org

Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach; Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us); Creator of Kwanzaa; and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Introduction to Black Studies, 4th Edition, www.MaulanaKarenga.org

Monnica Williams, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville.

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