The Guardian recently hosted a short video by Marlon James on the importance of being anti-racist, not simply non-racist. As he observes, many people value being non-racist and consider themselves non-racist (in keeping with their moral codes). This becomes problematic, however, when we become trapped in the “not” (i.e., not expressing biases, not discriminating against other groups, not voting for bigots), parking ourselves in a comfortable psychological zone. Being a non-racist facilitates inaction, where we sit and watch the mistreatment of others on the nightly news with disgust. The problem is, we often sit and watch without taking the next step (i.e., action).  

Marlon asks readers to engage in an interesting exercise: swap out the “c” in “racist” with a “p”. Ask yourself whether being a non-rapist is enough. Presumably not – you likely describe yourself as being anti-rapist. As such, Marlon argues, you wouldn’t buy an album or vote for someone who is a rapist. The same applies to racism; it’s not enough to not be racist, it’s important to be opposed to racism.

Psychological research clearly demonstrates that, in contemporary Western society, open expressions of prejudice are becoming increasingly rare and are themselves stigmatized (e.g., Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2004). But simply being non-racist is not enough. As extremely social beings, social norms matter a great deal to us. Standing on the sidelines communicates a message to bullies and racists and homophobes that their actions are not serious enough to warrant a response (see also Hoffarth & Hodson, 2014). Moreover, our inaction sends a message to the targets/victims of bias that we do not consider their rights worthy of defense. It is incumbent upon us, as citizens, to be directly opposed to all forms of oppression and denigration.

To the extent that being non-racist is important to you, it should be important to curb prejudicial responses in others. This isn’t always easy, and in fact it can be downright awkward or difficult. This might mean, for instance, that you not only refrain from telling racist or sexist jokes, but also from laughing at derogatory humor (see Hodson, Rush, & MacInnis, 2010; Hodson & MacInnis, in press). Taking it one step further, it is important that you communicate to the speaker that you’re not alright with their expressed attitude or behavior. In other words, the norms within this specific context (i.e., a relationship with you) are not in sync with oppressive communications.

In my 4th year prejudice seminars, I recently gave students experience with exposure to prejudicial comments, not only asking them their reactions but also helping them to see ways that they can actively combat such expressions. As advocated by Plous (2000), students can get practice responding in ways such as:

(a) asking questions about why communicators feel this way;

(b) appealing to the speaker’s sense of egalitarianism, indicating your surprise that he/she isn’t more open-minded;

(c) informing the communicator that such statements make you feel uncomfortable.

Such exercises help foster skills relevant to pushing back against oppression and bias. After all, in order to convert our non-racist self-concepts into anti-racist actions, we need not only the motivation but the skills to handle social situations.

As I’ve written elsewhere (Hodson et al., 2010; Hodson & MacInnis, in press), taking such action is not about being a killjoy or a prude. Rather, it’s about actively creating the type of world you want. After all, if you live a non-racist life as a personal goal, it’s very likely true that you care about the plight of others. Take the next step and put that philosophy into action, personally generating the social norms that can effectively bring others toward a more enlightened position.

As Marlon argues, it’s not enough to be a non-rapist, just like it’s not enough to be a non-racist (or non-homophobe etc). Being non-racist is an admirable first step, but it fails to produce enough change in others (or yourself), and worse, risks legitimizing the oppression of others. 

References and Suggested Readings:

Hodson, G., Dovidio, J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (2004).  The aversive form of racism.  In J.L. Lau (Ed.), The psychology of prejudice and discrimination (Vol 1., pp. 119-135). Westport, CT: Praeger Press.

Hodson, G., & MacInnis, C.C. (in press).  Derogating humor as a delegitimization strategy in intergroup contexts. Translational Issues in Psychological Science.

Hodson, G., Rush, J., & MacInnis, C.C. (2010). A “joke is just a joke” (except when it isn’t): Cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 660-682.  DOI: 10.1037/a0019627

Hoffarth, M.R., & Hodson, G. (2014). Is subjective ambivalence toward gays a modern form of bias? Personality and Individual Differences, 69, 75-80.

Plous, S. (2000). Responding to overt displays of prejudice: A role-playing exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 198-200.

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