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Racism Isn't in the Eye of the Beholder—It's in Culture

Mainstream psychology’s individualist understanding of racism is reductionist.

Key points

  • Racism is a cultural psychological issue, not merely an individual problem.
  • Racist behaviors are reproduced because cultural artifacts cognitively prime people to make associations with race and skin color.
  • To study the psychology of racism, we must understand the socio-historical roots of the unscientific classification system on which it rests.

Think about the following words and, in particular, the imagery that the words trigger in your mind: Royalty, queen, beauty, elite, prince, terrorist, gangster, professor, poor people, racial purity.

Did you catch yourself perceiving skin color or racial differences when considering all the different words? If so, where does that tendency come from? Is it you? Are you a nefarious racist?

Or could it be the culture that you—and me, or even all of us—have been raised in? Can it be that the stories we hear, the movies we watch, and the news shows that we loyally follow shape the cognitive associations we form about all the different expressions of the human phenotype?

Why Study Culture's Influence on Racism?

People often ask me: Why are you so interested in issues of colorism and racism?

In thinking about my response, I started to realize that my preoccupation with racism started in my early childhood. As a child who loved watching Hollywood movies, I always wondered why brown and black people were so often portrayed as the bad guys, while the heroes were mostly light-skinned people. I remember discussing this with my (white) mother, and I also remember her surprise. She had never noticed.

Even though I was very young, I noticed early on how our environment forms the way we think about others—I also noticed how unfair this is. This childhood realization shaped the kind of scholar I have become. That is, I focus on how most, if not all, of human tendencies are being maintained and reinforced by our social environment—instead of believing that behavior merely originates from the individual and therefore is solely his or her own responsibility.

A Reductionist Understanding of Racism

For many years, mainstream psychology has treated racism and colorism as behavioral tendencies situated within the individual, abstracted from their social context. Some of the most influential psychological studies argue that racial bias and colorism are forms of innate psychological defense mechanisms, such as the resistance to a changing environment, or the "irrational" fear of strangers (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, Sulloway, 2003). Other examples include studies that measure people's unconscious biases without questioning the root causes of these biases (e.g., Coutts, 2020).

The result of this kind of research is that solutions also become individualized in the form of, for example, anti-bias education that attempts to change individual cognitions, or cognitive therapy for the victims of discrimination to help them deal with their (often accurate) perceptions of other people’s negative behavior towards them.

But what does anti-bias education accomplish if a person successfully graduating such a course, steps back into a world where the media still negatively portrays dark-skinned people, where dark-skinned individuals are over-represented in lower socioeconomic conditions because of structural discrimination, where billboards mostly celebrate fair skin, and where the education system predominantly celebrates Western scholars instead of the many great thinkers from the global South? Indeed, it's possible that one’s anti-bias education gets nullified, and all the biased cognitions re-emerge in the mind.

It is for this reason that a merely individualist psychological approach to human tendencies of discrimination, whether based on race, skin color, gender, or any other categorical distinction can be seen as reductionist (e.g., Salter, Adams & Perez, 2018). Group-level social sciences, such as sociology and the political sciences, need to be incorporated into the psychological method to get an understanding of how these inequality-enhancing tendencies are still so prevalent today and so highly resistant to change.

The Historical Roots of Racism

In particular, I emphasize the necessity of going to the historical roots of colorist and racist classification systems (e.g., through classism and/or colonialism) and, as such, how these highly arbitrary forms of separating people became deeply embedded into our cultures (e.g., Bettache, 2020). That is, our cultures are made up of an endless number of cultural artifacts (e.g., commercials, stories, ideologies, imagery, religion, etc.) that continuously prime cognitive associations that maintain our colorist and racist behaviors.

In other words, I wish to emphasize the necessity of treating colorism and racism not simply as individual difference constructs—which unwittingly supports the status-quo of current day racial hierarchies by not questioning their root causes—but instead as a form of "context in mind and mind in context."

Mihai Surdu/unsplash
Cultural artifacts in the form of statues often celebrate colonial-era oppressors
Source: Mihai Surdu/unsplash

Even the most well-intentioned anti-racist individuals may still act in racist ways because cultural cues tied to skin color and race prime culturally specific (most often unconscious) behaviors, such as social avoidance, fear, or even disdain. Therefore, we need to unpack the root causes of these cultural cues. This means rediscovering the "social" part in social psychology—starting with the origins of the highly unscientific classification system of color-coded racism during the global reign of European colonialism, and how this system informs our everyday cultural environment today.

References

Bettache, K. (2020). A call to action: The need for a cultural psychological approach to discrimination on the basis of skin color in Asia. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(4), 1131-1139.

Coutts, A. (2020). Racial bias around the world. Retrieved from: https://osf.io/39svq/

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339–375.

Salter, P. S., Adams, G., & Perez, M. J. (2018). Racism in the structure of everyday worlds: A cultural-psychological perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 150-155.

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