Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Some thoughts on racism

Today I started my first summer class, Multicultural Issues in Therapy. During the summer, we have two month-long sessions where we take one class during each one. This is the first session, and I have this class on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:00-12:30. I actually really enjoy any class about multiculturalism/ diversity - I just get so fascinated by the psychology of all of it. So for example, here's some interesting ideas we talked about today.

There are lots of basic psychological processes inherent in humans that make us biased against people of other cultures. For example, we naturally categorize people - our minds do this automatically, because if we didn't classify things, we'd never be able to sort through life. So we classify people automatically and unconsciously, and one of the easiest ways to do this (because of the fact it's so visible) is by race.

We also naturally favor our own group over others. We don't do this to be mean, but people just naturally want their group to have the best. Therefore, if we're classifying people by race, we automatically desire our race to have the best.

These basic processes are then added to the cultural and environmental stereotypes we grow up with, news articles we read, and attitudes we're taught.
For example, there is an example of two different pictures in similar newspapers after Hurricane Katrina. One shows a black man carrying bread down a street, and it reads "Man after looting grocery store." Another shows a white man in an almost identical situation, and reads "Man just found food for his family at an abandoned grocery store." These newspapers have slightly different headlines for the same picture which carry very different connotations about people of different races. You can't argue we implicity learn different things about different cultures, even if they're not always this obvious.

So those are the things that contribute to racism. What contributes to people not being racist? It's a short list. In reality, the only things that lead to people fighting against this racism are abstract principles of justice, fairness, and equality. Period. And a lot of people do have these principles, and they're very important, but are they enough to overcome all those unconscious things going on inside our head? It's definitely questionable.

So we watched this lecture by a guy named John Dovidio, who has done all sorts of research on this topic. (Look it up, it's really interesting.) He has basically found that modern racism consists of people who desire not to be racist, and who in fact believe they are not racist, but often their unconscious decisions, actions, and behaviors are racist. As in, they are more favorable to whites than blacks. (Of course you can argue this with any type of minority or majority, but his particular research is mostly on white/black relations.) So people's verbal actions and desires truly often are toward equality and justice, but when situations are ambiguous, or they're in a hurry, or any other type of situation where they're relying on the unconscious decision making process, they tend to be somewhat racist.

This makes me a little defensive, but I think there's a lot of truth to it. I definitely don't think of myself as racist, and I really don't want to be. But do I identify with this in some way? How will this affect me when I'm a therapist for people different than myself? And more importantly, how will it affect them? How do these unconscious attitudes affect minorities in their day to day life? How do they affect you in your day to day life?

Just something to think about...


JulieWolfe said...

I have lots of comments on this!
1. you should look at/skim Eduardo Bonilla Silva's "Racism without Racists" book. It's all about how colorblindness is a form of racism. For example, 80% of jobs are still offered through connections, so people starting out with fewer connections (ie lower SES, usually) don't benefit at all from colorblindness... We're not at a place in society where colorblindness is beneficial yet. Make sense? I heard him speak last year; it was pretty good. Although... at the talk, I decided some of his conclusions were a little bit sexist, which I think is a little funny. Ask me about that - it's hard to explain here.
2. You should also read "Blink" if you haven't. There is some interesting results from racism studies in some of the chapters.

Kristi said...

1. I'll put that book on my reading list! We basically came to that same conclusion too..basically, treating everyone equally is discriminatory toward most people, because it ends up continuing to favor white males just the same as always because they are already at such an advantage. And treating some cultures the way we as whites want to be treated is very different from the way they want to be treated.
2. Yes I have read it - very good book! His other book, The Tipping Point, was also neat.