So You Want to Be a Shrink?

Navigating careers in psychology.

Race & Society

How the intersection of race and thought may change society.

Of late, there has been a flurry of discourse, public and private, about the role of race in American society. Some have spoken to the progress that has been made while others have expressed deep concern for the work that still needs to be done. A fascinating of the entire phenomenon is how race may influence individuals' thoughts and decisions.

Recent media polls about race relations note the differences between whites and blacks of their perceptions about progress in race relations. Considering that whites more than blacks viewed race relations as having improved begs a few thoughts as to how there can be such a difference. Is it reflective of a shift in attitudes and beliefs? Are we as a society moving towards a more inclusive worldview? There may be a variety of possible reasons for this societal change so let's explore a few of them.

Some may attribute this perceived change to the idea of greater social contact between racial groups causing a reduction in prejudice. The mere contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954) has endured its fair share of controversy. This theory proposed that mere contact between would be sufficient to reduce bias. The classic "Robbers Cave" research (Sherif et al, 1961) challenged this concept in their finding that simple contact was insufficient for bias reduction. Groups in conflict needed to work cooperatively towards a superordinate goal in order to overcome biased perceptions of one another. Others may ascribe these changes to the integration of aspects of ethnic and racial minority cultures into mainstream American culture. Another possibility is that this societal transformation may be an effect of political correctness which may have created an illusion of improved relations.

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These ideas beg the question - Has this shift actually occurred? The previous argument might lead one to believe that racial perceptions have changed so significantly that we are on the verge of a color-blind society. However, there are thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling to share for some of the previously noted reasons as well as others. In their explicit use, stereotypes serve as a set of clear and open biased beliefs that people consciously use as part of their thoughts, decisions and social actions. When stereotypes are implicit, it means that they are unconsciously known to people yet may not necessarily act as clear guides for their conscious decisions and actions. With the understanding that people may be unaware of holding of these stereotypes, could they still wield some unconscious persuasion?

Psychologists live and work in this same societal context so are not exempt from the possible influence of implicit stereotypes. In their capacity as researchers and clinicians, psychologists have a particular obligation to move beyond these perceptions in order to best serve the communities in which they work. In research, these attitudes could color or occlude the very information that the research was designed to elicit. For clinicians, these implicit perceptions could interfere with the therapeutic relationship which in turn could delay or destroy the client's opportunity for treatment and healing. Additionally, working to surpass these misperceptions provides the opportunity to be more inclusive in study and practice which is desperately needed for the future of the field.

References:
Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: the Robbers Cave experiment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Book Exchange.

Key Sun is a psychologist, social worker, and associate professor of law and justice at Central Washington University. He is the author of Correctional Counseling.more...

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