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How We Discuss Crime Victims Betrays Deep Unconscious Biases

Part One: The roots of xenophobia are often unconscious.

Key points

  • A series of heinous hate crimes in Atlanta, GA, 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.

A series of heinous hate crimes in Atlanta, GA, last week sparked a national conversation about xenophobia—a national conversation which is, hopefully, just the beginning of meaningful change towards recognizing the deep cultural roots of racism, hatred of “otherness,” and racial violence in this country. But these roots are deep, and the processes that sustain them are often unconscious.

Cognitive dissonance, terror management, rationalization, and victim-blaming are among these unconscious processes. In order to address them and create lasting cultural shifts, we must dig just as deep into facing our own fears and shame, admitting to our own biases, and then taking action—over and over and over again. In other words, we have to make the unconscious conscious and then practice conscious decision making until the new ways of being become the norm (Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019).

The first part of this article will explore how normative unconscious processes—ones that all of our minds are susceptible to performing—are also at the root of how difficult it is to create lasting cultural changes. This is not to say that the unconscious is “bad.” Rather, it simply is.

How aware or unaware we are of how our minds work will help us understand why we react with such extremes to stimuli in the environment and how those reactions are then refracted through the lens of learned cultural hatred and racism. In Part Two, I will discuss the unconscious origins of victim-blaming and how we may be able to ultimately, through self-exploration and willingness to look at the deepest, most shameful parts of our psyche, change ourselves and, with that, the world we live in.

A Difficult Year

In following the news about rallies and calls for justice following the Atlanta shootings, it is not lost on me as a clinical psychologist how much certain discussions betray unconscious biases. Many people are embracing the “sexual addiction” narrative. When apprehended, the shooter cited trying to combat sex addiction as the reason that motivated the shootings, not racism. Even TIME magazine ran an interview exploring this angle while referencing in passing an article from February of 2021, which acknowledges a rise in crimes against Asian Americans in the past 12 months.

The COVID-19 pandemic started with a video of a man in the New York subway, ragefully pointing a bottle of Febreze at an Asian man, shouting, “You better move.” Ever since, the phrase “Chinese virus” has made the media rounds ad infinitum, most infamously promulgated by Mr. Trump while in his role of leader of the free world.

In an article published on March 9th, 2020, ("Racism Is Alive and Well"), Dr. June Lee Kwon and I discussed how quickly (automatically) those who unconsciously hold racial biases can embrace the “I am not racist; I am trying to stay healthy” (current version: “This is not about racism; it’s about sexual addiction”) narrative. That article has, sadly, aged well, as the year has proven especially difficult for Asian Americans. How can we be so misattuned and defensive about acknowledging the truth?

Terror Management Theory

During moments of heightened threat to our life, we are more likely to create a division in our minds between “our” people and “others.” This “othering” is our heritage of eras past when resources were scarce and life was cruel. When survival meant perceiving everyone but one’s own tribe as an enemy.

Several decades ago, however, Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski (1997) put forth Terror Management Theory (TMT). It posits that even when we are not directly exposed to a threat to our life, we are constantly battling existential anxiety about death or extinction. That anxiety, in turn, creates a powerful yearning to belong, to be part of, and to feel important to a group of similar individuals.

After a full year of living on high alert and processing the constant flow of information related to death counts, we are even more likely to feel frightened and to strive for a sense of safety, security, and belonging. Many are drawn to resort to more primitive and automatic unconscious ways of processing the world, such as splitting ourselves and others into in- and out-groups. The civil unrest seen in the past year is at least partially catalyzed by how highly activated people are (the other part, of course, being that many racial and social injustices have yet to be addressed).

The processes driving such polarization are unconscious. They are merely fueled by the pervasive fear and overt hate rhetoric our country saw in 2020. And the more frightened we are, the more likely we are to perceive “the other”—be it other in political affiliation, cultural background, or sexual orientation—as a threat to our own survival.

Enter Cognitive Dissonance and Rationalization

Of course, as human beings, we also would like to be perceived in a positive light—by those around us, yes, but also by our own selves. We are invested in maintaining a positive view of ourselves and do not like to be identified as “racist,” “bigoted,” or “xenophobe.” We also fervently avoid feelings of shame and guilt, which are often induced by recognizing that our words or actions may be racist, bigoted, or xenophobic.

So how do we reconcile a situation in which our values and our behaviors do not match? How do we extinguish shame? We change one side of the equation, rationalizing our behaviors. In other words, I will try to explain my behavior through pseudo-logical rationalizations, which, if examined further, reveal self-deception.

This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance and was extensively researched by Leon Festinger (1957). He discovered that holding inconsistencies like this causes internal tension, which we seek to alleviate. But since we cannot change an action that already took place, we then unconsciously twist the truth to be less shameful.

For instance, if I do not wish to wear a mask during COVID, but am also vaguely aware that a deathly virus that I bring to the house can kill my grandmother, I have two choices—wear the mask, even if I feel discomfort, or convince myself that the virus is actually not that bad. I am even more likely to do the latter if I have already engaged in interactions with my family without a mask on. Through personal communication, health care workers have shared with me stories about people dying of COVID still denying the severity of the virus on their deathbed. This is how powerful cognitive dissonance and rationalization are.

More pertinently this week, if I am holding unconscious biases against Asian Americans, my rage at the news of six massacred women of Asian descent may be lackluster. I may be vaguely aware of that but unwilling to admit my own bias. I may find myself buying into the sexual addiction narrative, maybe even digging into the information about whether or not any illicit business was taking place at the spas, conveniently turning a blind eye to the fact that people are dead—they were mass murdered due to racial hatred, and it is irrelevant if they were or were not sex workers. I may ignore the reports about citizens and government officials calling for more attention to the violence and racism experienced by Asian Americans and over-focus on other narratives surrounding the shooting.

When it comes to white shame, evidence has amounted throughout the year. For instance, if my friend admits that calling the virus a China virus contributes to the problem of xenophobia but also knows that they laughed heartily when they first heard the phrase, they have to face the truth that they are part of the problem. Perhaps they do not want to experience such guilt or shame, so they deny that there is a problem in the first place. They declare that not only is there no problem with the phrase (like Meghan McCain), but that the whole issue of racism against Asian Americans is moot. Problem solved.



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

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 29 (p. 61–139). Academic Press.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

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