Bad and Good News About Racism, Sexism, and Discrimination

Racism, sexism, and discrimination can be minimized but not eliminated.

Posted May 09, 2016

used with permission from wikimedia
Source: used with permission from wikimedia

When it comes to racism, sexism, and discrimination there is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that we likely can never eliminate these qualities in people and I do mean all people. The good news is that we can make great progress in minimizing these undesirable qualities in people….and again, I mean all people.

Psychologically and cognitively we are designed to make very quick judgments and to overgeneralize. Think about it. In order to survive in the world over many thousands of years we have needed to be quick to decide if we are safe or not and if others are friends or foes. Research suggests that we make very fast impressions, judgments, and decisions about others and once made they tend to be hard to change. If we think about various in and out groups (i.e., groups that we belong to as well as groups that we don’t belong to) or briefly think about different types of people, institutions, locations, and so forth we typically have an immediate impression about them. 

For example, play a word association test for a moment. What is the very first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the following words: Men, women, boys, girls, Asians, Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Evangelicals, and Buddhists?  Now, what is the very first thing that comes to your mind when you hear these additional words: Hawaii, Florida, New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, France, Israel, England, Iran, and Germany?  How about politics? What do you think of when you hear the following words:  Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Tea Party, and Socialist?

The point is that when we confront people, institutions, regions, and various in and out groups, we tend to make quick and overgeneralized judgments about them.  We just do. This can be adaptive yet it can be problematic and highly concerning too. Thus, this very human tendency that is sometimes helpful is unfortunately ripe for prejudice and bias that includes racism, sexism, discrimination, and dangerous bigotry.  It is just part of the human condition. This is the bad news.

used with permission from wikimedia
Source: used with permission from wikimedia

However, there is good news too. The good news is that we can confront this tendency with exposure to diverse others. Exposing ourselves to others as well as to places and institutions helps to fight against these biases. It is hard to overgeneralize and stereotype when you know a variety of people from different groups or you have had direct and ongoing experience with institutions, places, and peoples.  The more we stay within our in group the more vulnerable we are to stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, and bias.

More exposure means more nuanced and complex views regarding others and the world. This is one of the key reasons why experience with diversity, travel, and ongoing engagement with people outside of our comfort zones is so critical for creating a better world for all of us. The more we are around others from very different backgrounds the more we connect with the individual human being beneath our assumptions; appreciating and empathizing with their purely human joys and sorrows, strengths and limitations, and unique pressures, challenges and circumstances. Rather than being about "us vs them" it becomes more about "we."  And that is exactly what we need to move forward in a large, multicultural, challenging, and complex world. 

So what do you think?

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Copyright 2016 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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