I’ve long wondered, “How could racism and sexism have persisted into the modern era?” By these “isms” I’m referring to the putting down of an entire group based on the notion that its members are similar to each other and different from us. The other group is portrayed as less decent overall, or similar acts have different implications for one group versus the other. An example is consensual sex outside a relationship that would lead to denigration of the woman but not the man. These ideas seem so primitive that reasonable people have to wonder why they didn’t die sometime around the discovery of fire.

Indeed, personality research has taught us that traits pertaining to human decency cut across culture, race, and sex. The expression of traits has typically been observed to occur on a continuum from one extreme to its opposite, with most people in the middle. Moreover, the trait of humility has been very closely tied to the traits of honesty and fair-mindedness (1). Within a given culture, we can expect people to range from being extremely sincere, fair-minded, non-greedy, and modest to being extremely deceptive, exploitative, greedy, and arrogant. You can use this information to gauge which of your friends are probably honest with you – it’s the humble ones. Likewise, you can expect your arrogant White and arrogant Black friends to deceive and exploit you at some point in the relationship.

What follows is my two-part explanation of how these “isms” have persisted. The first part is that my presumption that racism and sexism are widespread might simply be wrong. After all, when I search my own heart and mind, I find myself to be devoid of racism. Robert Sternberg (2) has referred to race as a folk taxonomy without a definitive biological underpinning (i.e., “race” is a made-up thing). Sure, there are traits for physical characteristics, such as lighter or darker skin, tied to particular populations; but there is a great deal of overlap in and mixing of traits between the so-called races. I’m perfectly happy to tell people that I am “bi-racial” with a Mexican grandmother. It seems to make some people trust me more, and others trust me less. However, I personally have never found race to tell me anything about a person’s character and do not mind the hard work behind a case-by-case assessment of it. Likewise, I don’t denigrate women relative to men for having sex, nor do I look down on prostitutes based on their occupying that role. Perhaps there are lots – if not most -- of you who think the same way I do.

The second part of the answer is far more insidious and hard to combat: The people who are neither racist nor sexist are the very same individuals who are laid-back and accepting of the world. They humbly and regularly ask themselves, “Who am I to judge?” Therefore, they extend their tolerance to the racist or sexist persons, inadvertently allowing those persons to voice their unchecked opinions loudly. Because these humble people are sincere and fair-minded, they consistently consider the possibility – no matter how remote – that they are no different from the racist and sexist persons.

An illustration of the humility that competent people can exhibit comes from work conducted by David Dunning and his colleagues in the 1990s (3). They gave students at Cornell some logic, grammar, and humor problems to solve. They then asked them to evaluate their performance relative to other Cornell students and provided them incentives to be accurate. As expected, the students tended to overestimate their performance, with the very worst performers still seeing themselves as above average. But a fascinating result was that the very top performers underestimated how good they were. They assumed that their peers were better than they actually were! I’ve seen this kind of humility with some of my own excellent students. For instance, a former graduate student told me that he wanted to postpone his preliminary exams the night before he was to take them because he felt woefully underprepared. But he did take them as scheduled. Afterward, my colleagues told me that his was the best set of answers they had ever read!

In this “call to arms” I am asking those of you at the very high end on this continuum of decent traits to consider that your lovely quality of humility may at times be obstructing your vision of reality. I have little doubt that you are truthful and sincere. But whereas Sissela Bok (4) has argued that some degree of truthfulness is necessary for fairness and justice, I argue that some degree of truth is essential as a foundation for these values. In other words, one must do better than speak sincerely. One must also have a good grasp of reality, including understanding the motives of those people who are willing to exploit all of us. Decent people likely give those at the opposite end of the decency continuum too much credit, just as decent people have likely done across the ages.

Consider the extreme case of the racist Hitler. People at the high end of the decency continuum were slow to react, asking themselves, “Who am I to judge him?” In contrast, like other people at the low end of the decency continuum (2), Hitler was quick to act, cynical and confident in his belief that he had a superior understanding of the harsh, competitive realities of life.

Low in decency, overconfident, exploitative individuals readily see themselves as an excellent judge of other people’s motives (2). Because their everyday lies and injustices go unchecked, they are permitted to define cultural norms from their cynical and sinister perspective. Even worse, these exploitative individuals will likely assume that others are dishonest just like they are (5). Thus, these norms will not only oppress the weak, but also blame them for their own oppression.

The trouble with trying to induce very decent people to stop this oppression is that they are wont to accept any characterization of some other people as morally inferior. This is because true humility lies at the foundation of their motives. Instead of condemning the oppressors, they can be expected to question whether, like the Nazis, they too would have exterminated their own neighbors. The shocking truth is that they would never have done that because they would rather be killed than kill anyone. No one knows this about them because they hate to brag and are not absolutely sure of anything anyhow. My guess is that they would have passively agreed to board one of the many trains bound for Auschwitz, only to be shocked and outraged when it was too late. I’d expect them to be more outraged than anyone upon discovering the truth because of their profound love of fairness and genuine astonishment upon being betrayed. I imagine that most unbearable of all to them would be the realization that some of their neighbors—who might otherwise have put up a fight— instead opted to trust them and thus boarded the train.

I confess that I myself have often been too passive in combatting everyday lies and injustices due to the respect I give others by default. For instance, two years ago, I merely listened to a seemingly sweet and charming long-term acquaintance explain that although he comes across as “boyfriend material”, he regularly has one-night stands. He recounted details about every imaginable variant of sex he would have with a given woman. He would then reject her subsequent efforts to pursue a relationship because she’d been so permissive. He nonchalantly justified his behavior by saying that, “Hey if she is doing this with me the first night, imagine what she’s doing with other guys?” Instead of expressing outrage, which I did not feel until much later, I’d simply taken in what he was saying. A vague sense of hopelessness stayed with me for days after that 3-hour conversation. I had glimpsed at the world through the eyes of a man who felt entitled to exploit it and was very confident in his take on reality. Yet I myself did not condemn the woman one bit.

Months later, I decided to press him to explain how he could judge himself and her so differently for the same acts. Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “It’s in the culture.” Looking back, I regret that I did not tell him, “She was acting on good faith that you were interested in a relationship, and you were duplicitous. You don’t get to put her down, when you are the one whose decency is called into question.” I could see that my default position of assuming others are at least somewhat decent was way, way off for this deceptive and abusive person.

This past Good Friday, I suddenly could see clearly—as if I’d stepped directly onto fresh pile of dog feces left on the sidewalk by a careless neighbor—that I and other fair-minded people have not done nearly enough to counter racism and sexism. We have through our passivity allowed this sexual double standard to see the light of day over and over again. For instance, I kept tuning in to David Letterman as he called Madonna a slut/whore countless times, while he himself was having an affair with one of his employees. It is hard to fathom how much damage he did to our culture, where the one of the most common and difficult-to-treat sexual dysfunctions is a woman’s lack of sexual desire. This lack of desire is often rooted in a woman’s deep-seated feelings of shame and disgust. But how can an American woman avoid feeling that sex is disgusting when judgments of her character hinge on controlling her own sexual behavior?

If directly confronting others is too radical for you, perhaps you might consider challenging racism or sexism through the banding together of friends and family members who, like you, are at the high end of the decency spectrum. Although you may have long-standing fears that you won’t be believed, perhaps you will be able to muster enough courage to come “out of the closet” to them about your own non-racist, non-sexist views. Consider also “confessing” that you always mean what you say and “admitting” that you hate to exploit people and want fairness. When they sincerely tell you the same things in return, I’m sure that you’ll be happy to tell them, “I believe you”. Don’t be surprised to see crocodile tears of joy tied to being known in this excellent way.

My mom, Mercedes Kelly, generously provided me several apropos quotes from the Bible this Easter morning. “Open thy mouth, judge righteously” (Pr 31:9). “...he that is spiritual judges all things” (1 Co 2: 15). “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged.” (Pr 16:6).


1. Lee, K. & Ashton, M. C. (2006). Further assessment of the HEXACO Personality Inventory: Two new facet scales and an observer report form. Psychological Assessment , 18, 182-191.

2. Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., & Kidd, K. K. (2005). Intelligence, race, and genetics, American Psychologist, 60, 46-59.

3. Kruger, J. M., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

4. Bok, S. (1999). Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. Vintage.

5. Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., Pozzebon, J. A.,Visser, B. A., Bourdage, J. S.; et al. (2009). Similarity and assumed similarity in personality reports of well-acquainted persons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 460-472.


This post stems from Anita Kelly’s Science of Honesty project, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. I am very grateful to Anita Payne Miller, Morris Miller, Mercedes Kelly, and the Fab 50 Friends for generously lending their insights and support!

About the Author

Anita E. Kelly Ph.D.

Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She is author of The Clever Student and The Psychology of Secrets.

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