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How to Uproot Unconscious Bias and Xenophobia

The roots of xenophobia are often unconscious: Part 2.

Key points

  • A series of heinous hate crimes in Atlanta, Georgia, last week sparked a national conversation about xenophobia.
  • Cognitive dissonance, terror management, rationalization, and victim-blaming are among the unconscious processes fueling racial hate.
  • To create lasting cultural change, we have to face our own unconscious and conscious shame, admit to our own biases, and take action again and again and again.

This is the second post of a two-part series. Find Part 1 here.

Racism and xenophobia in America are deeply rooted not only in the historical legacy of slavery and oppression but also in how they are perpetuated by unconscious processes. The road to uprooting such harmful biases and achieving equality for all is long and thorny, requiring non-defensive self-awareness and unyielding efforts to make the unconscious conscious and then practice conscious decision making until the new ways of being become the norm (Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019).

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed three unconscious processes—terror management, cognitive dissonance, and rationalization—and how they contribute to the ways in which victims of hate crimes are treated or talked about. Another phenomenon discussed below, victim-blaming, also factors prominently in why many well-meaning citizens have a hard time acknowledging obvious racially motivated crimes as such.


There is another reason why we have a hard time acknowledging the injustices perpetrated against innocent victims. In the case of the Atlanta shootings, a narrative that goes with the sexual addiction angle is that some of the spas were allegedly associated with sex work and may have been the site of several prostitution stings. Without debating the veracity of these statements, the danger of that information becoming the focus of the news cycle is that it provides fertile ground for victim-blaming (cf. Grubb & Turner, 2012).

On the one hand, we can see a reinforcement of stereotypes—both of fetishizing and villainizing Asian women. On the other, victim-blaming is yet another result of terror management at play. We create yet another ingroup/outgroup division, again in the service of establishing a sense of safety. When we see someone being victimized in such a way—a senseless unpredictable act of violence—we unconsciously and automatically become invested in distancing ourselves from the victims. If I am not-them, then I will not be subjected to the same violence, right? (This is also why the most vehement and cruel comments about the connection between women’s skirt length/consumption of alcohol and sexual assault are often made by other women. Remember designer Donna Karen’s comments about Harvey Weinstein’s victims “asking for it”?). We are unconsciously trying to reassure ourselves that we cannot possibly be victimized, and the actual individuals impacted by violence pay a doubly high price—that of the impact of being aggressed against, and that of our need to blame them for it in order to reassure ourselves in our safety (see Pinciotti & Orcutt; 2020).

If These Processes Are Unconscious, Then What Is My Responsibility?

There is no easy way to deal with unconscious biases. As centuries of overt and institutionalized racism have shown, it takes a long time to change a culture. It is painful, effortful, and requires the kind of honesty that causes us pain and shame. We have to be able to bear it and work hard to change ourselves. While unconscious processes are evolutionarily based, we do have tools to modify their impact and change our actions through decision-making.

Step 1: Acknowledgment

The first, and possibly hardest, step towards change is the one that requires us to ask ourselves some very tough questions. And to answer them honestly. What are my deeply-held beliefs about other groups of people? What have my parents, grandparents, subculture taught me, implicitly or explicitly, to think of other cultural groups? Do I subscribe to some racist ways of thinking and treating others? How do I feel and behave around people from another race or diverse background? How do these feelings impact my decisions and how do I feel about those decisions and behaviors? Do I feel shame I am trying to cover up, to numb out, to push away? Shame is the greatest barrier to changing our actions. Not wanting to feel it is so powerful that it will often lead us to deny acting in shameful ways in the first place.

Step 2: Action and Repetition

And then we need to act. Act differently and do it more. Act in ways that may be uncomfortable, such as admitting wrongdoing, committing to being more aware and thoughtful, and even helping others see their own biases. Being vocal about others, be it friends or family, when they act in hurtful ways is not easy. Calling out others to whom we feel we belong is scary (remember TMT?). And even then, it is not calling others out that will beget long-term change, as much as modeling doing the right thing through our own behavior. This is the difference between calling someone racist and making a simple statement of “I will not participate in a conversation where such remarks are made.”

Such actions ensure that we own our actions and are responsible for them. Leading by example, acting in accordance with our set of values (e.g., “I want to behave in ways that ensure the equality of all people, even if it means admitting to my biases and being constantly aware of them,” vs. “I want to not be called racist, so I will deny wrongdoing”), is the only way to create hope, empowerment, and change. And if we are tired of talking about racism, let us just imagine how tired those who are experiencing it are.


Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.

Pinciotti, C. M., & Orcutt, H. K. (2020b). It won’t happen to me: An examination of the effectiveness of defensive attribution in rape victim blaming. Violence Against Women, 26(10), 1059–1079.

Grubb, A., & Turner, E. (2012). Attribution of blame in rape cases: A review of the impact of rape myth acceptance, gender role conformity and substance use on victim blaming. Aggressive and Violent Behavior, 17(5), 443–452. 10.1016/j.avb.2012.06.002

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