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Understanding Prejudice, Stereotypes, and Racism

Why we develop social constructs—and how we identify and change them.

Recent horrific murders and large social justice protests have heightened our awareness of racism and injustice in the United States. In the past week, much has been written about these issues and the need for improved social justice in the U.S. In this post, I’ll focus on explaining some concepts and issues related to racism, prejudice, and bias in each of us.

Social Construct Theory

All people have a need to make sense of the world around us, and we do that from infancy and across our lifetimes by creating constructs and categories to help interpret our environment. We have constructs like “fruit” and “vegetable” to categorize types of food. We create constructs about gender, age, and other attributes of people. I recall when my son was around 6 years old and forming ideas about what dads do and what moms do.

He said, “It is the mom’s job to make the dinner.” My response was that yes, in our house, that appeared to be the case. Then he said, “It is the dad’s job to do the ironing.” I hate ironing, so I enthusiastically agreed with his conclusion. I’m sure later events led to changes in these constructs, yet the process of making sense of gender roles and creating constructs centers around this.

Most of our constructs are formed based upon our socialization and the concepts we learn from the people around us, as well as our exposure to books, media, and interactions with other people. Through this process, we develop constructs around race. No one is born a racist, but as we are exposed to others’ biases, inaccuracies, and stereotypes, we develop constructs that are discriminatory. In the U.S., it is nearly impossible to grow up without some racist ideas and constructs, as images and messages are around us all of the time.

Confirmation Bias

Once constructs have been formed, all people have a natural tendency to selectively attend to information that agrees with or confirms our existing constructs. So, biases such as Asian men are good at math and science, black men are good at basketball, or white men are entitled and insensitive to others are reinforced as we selectively attend to any information that reinforces our biased construct. We then have well-entrenched stereotypes that can guide our actions.

Implicit Bias

Once a stereotype is entrenched, it can become unconscious and automatic. We find ourselves just reacting without stopping to think. We may believe that we are truly not prejudiced or racist, not consciously aware of our automatic thoughts and attitudes. There are generally two parts to this: Implicit thoughts are those deeply held and unconscious thoughts and beliefs that sometimes guide our behavior without our conscious awareness. Explicit thoughts are the ones of which we are consciously aware.

Let’s look at an example. One common bias is that black teenage boys are somehow more likely to be dangerous or criminal than white teenage boys. The use of marijuana has been largely similar across white and black teenagers. However, black teenagers are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for possession than white teenage boys. The difference in consequences is not related to any real difference and is entirely related to erroneous beliefs related to race. The dire long-term consequences to young black men’s lives are self-evident.

A failure to confront and change the implicit bias leads to culture-wide social injustice. We may not engage in some of the horrible and frightening behavior in recent murders of innocent black men and women, but we all have unavoidably internalized some racist beliefs. We must each confront these if our culture is going to change.

Becoming Anti-Racist

Changing our individual unjust social constructs takes conscious effort and practice. I believe we need to begin by acknowledging our own individual racist beliefs and constructs. We all have them, and we need to acknowledge them to grow and change.

We need to actively seek out objective facts that do not support our beliefs. We need to focus on making our implicit beliefs conscious and reflect on the impact of these on others. If we tell ourselves, “I’m not a racist,” we are likely burying and ignoring our implicit racist beliefs.

Instead, we can examine and acknowledge our most damaging social constructs and begin to change them. This process helps us to become anti-racist, starting with our own hearts and minds.