The Social Psychology of Racism

Updated: Jun 26


Why are people racist?

Am I racist?

What can we do to make people less prejudiced?

Is it possible to stop racism?

These are some of the questions at the forefront of conversations about race inequality all around the world. They are important questions, none of which have an easy answer. But we can start to unpack the foundations of what we do know about the mechanisms of bias, prejudice, and discrimination. We'll be relating all of this to race and racism, but these principles are applicable to oppression in all forms.

In this post we’ll cover 4 main topics:

  • The ABC Model of Attitudes and how this relates to race

  • Implicit Bias and how you might be prejudiced without realising

  • The Ins and Outs of In-Groups and Out-Groups, and how we can use this to overcome individual and group level racism

  • Some tips for having conversations about race without ruining family dinner

The Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter movement is one of the most important and significant social and cultural shifts of our time. There has been an outpouring of support for the cause, and an incredible amount of information, content, and resources shared. I understand that this can be a really overwhelming time, especially for Black and Indigenous people at the frontlines.


If you’re a white person, this might be the first time that you’ve really had to think about race and prejudice. Even though I’ve been quite involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues through my work for several years, this has been a time of intense learning and reflection for me. The concept of privilege is really uncomfortable to sit with, but its an incredibly important process. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that without these uncomfortable truths being acknowledged and worked through, inequality will always be the status quo. This means that there is something really tangible that you can do to help the cause.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to be a good ally. To bring value and spread awareness, while amplifying the voices of Black and Indigenous people, and not overstepping or saying the wrong thing. I’ve also learnt this weekend that being an ally might mean being wrong sometimes, but it means doing something.


Racism as a whole is a systemic issue. The solution isn’t going to be as easy as learning to be nice or hitting your diversity quota. But by understanding how racism works on a human-to-human and group-to-group level, we can have a bottom-up influence as more and more people work on challenging their underlying assumptions and beliefs about race. This is not to say that we don’t need top-down influence through policy and governmental change. But it has to involve everyday people too.


So I encourage you to take a deep breath. Recognise that this is a difficult topic to talk about. Understand how important it is. And approach this conversation with compassion, humility, and an open heart.


In this post I want to talk about racism from a social psychology perspective. This is a particular research interest of mine, and in this post I want to unpack some of the mechanisms of how racism works, and some of the ways we can use this knowledge to address racism. There are stacks of books written on this that go into all the nitty gritty details, but for now we’re sticking to the basics. We’ll introduce a couple of key theories and models that help explain the concepts, and then translate them into real-life situations.

The ABC Model: Building Blocks of Our Attitudes


To look at racism as a whole, we need to break down its parts. There are three main components to the attitudes that we hold:


  • Affective: Our feelings and emotions

  • Behavioural: The things we say and do

  • Cognitive: Our thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions


On their own, they aren’t bad things! We need to sort the information we have about the world in a way that we can use to guide us. The problem is when our feelings, behaviours, and thoughts aren’t serving their purpose of helping us, and are instead hurting other people.


Let’s have a look at how these three components play a part in racism (and sexism, ableism, ageism, all the -isms).





We can see that the affective component is Prejudice. The Cambridge Dictionary defines Prejudice as:


“An unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge”


Prejudice is a highly emotional response and is often rooted in fear. It can lead to quick assumptions, jumping to conclusions, and aversion to wanting to be around or involved with that person.

A key part of this definition is that is based on a lack of knowledge or direct experience. This means that it is generally influenced by things like the media, politicians, rumours, and stories. A little later on in this post we’re going to be talking about why that is so significant, and how this concept can be a really powerful way to combat racism.


Let’s jump to ‘C’- cognition. Here we see that thoughts and beliefs lead to stereotypes. Stereotypes are a type of heuristic, which are like shortcuts that help us understand the world quickly. But they’re not helpful when they make damaging negative generalisations to a group of people. If you find yourself saying “But all Black people…”, that is a red flag that you’re using a stereotype (unless the last word in that sentence is “Matter”, in which case please continue). And it comes out in much subtler forms too, little assumptions that you make, representation of groups based on a small set of characteristics (especially in the media) and believing fake news.


Perhaps the most troubling part of stereotyping is something called Stereotype Threat, or internalised racism. As it sounds, this means that people of colour can end up believing these damaging stereotypes about themselves, and it can lead to poorer performance and wellbeing. We see this particularly when it comes to education and standardised testing, in both children and adults.


Stereotypes might actually be based on your own direct experience, but I can just about guarantee you that your sample size isn’t going to be very representative, and the conclusions that you’re drawing won’t be very accurate. After one negative interaction with a person of colour, or one media story, you find yourself forming an opinion that you generalise to all people of that group. Then you tend to use something called Confirmation Bias, which leads you to unintentionally only look for information that is consistent with the stereotype in your head, while disregarding information that shows the opposite. This is a normal cognitive process and doesn’t make you a bad person, but when it leads to bad outcomes, we need to do something to disrupt this process.


Part of breaking this down is challenging damaging stereotypes and seeing a person as an individual rather than just a member of a group. We’ll expand on this a little more later when we talk about in-groups and out-groups.


Coming back to behaviour and discrimination, which is the most dangerous component. When your prejudices and stereotypes translate into an action that discriminates against another person, you have real consequences. This quote sums it up pretty well:

“Your beliefs don’t make you a good person, your behaviour does”- Sukhraj Dhillon

I wouldn’t say it’s that simple, because your beliefs play an important role in your overall attitudes, but its true that your behaviour is the ultimate marker of who is hurt by your actions. Behaviour is also a good starting point for change. Even though you might still have immediate thoughts or feelings that are based in prejudice or damaging stereotypes, you get to decide how you respond. You’re in the driver’s seat here!


Implicit Bias


“But Leah” I hear you say, “I’m not racist!”


Ah, but are you sure?


A recent study by the Australian National University measured the implicit bias of over 11,000 Australians and found that a massive 75% of people showed some sort of negative bias towards Aboriginal people. Yep, even people who are highly educated and classified themselves as “strongly left wing”. That is 3 out of 4 people who find it easier to subconsciously associate Aboriginal people with negative words, and white people with positive words. Now, this research isn’t perfect, but it is overwhelmingly consistent with anecdotal evidence and statistical trends from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all across the country, and from people of colour worldwide.


Most people are very attached to their identities as good, kind people, and being called racist is a huge threat to that identity, which can cause us to go into hyper-defensive mode. Remember how at the start I was talking about how this is an uncomfortable topic to talk about? This is why. Hear me out on this one, because I don’t think you’re a bad person if you have some implicit bias. But I do think that it’s your responsibility to do what you can to change it. If you feel yourself getting defensive, that’s okay. Recognise the feeling and make the decision to lean into and push past the uncomfortableness.


The problem is that there has been a shift from overt racism (e.g. name calling, blatant aggression, intentional discrimination, what most people consider “racist” behaviour), to a more subtle, harder to detect form of implicit racism. This has falsely led people to believe that racism is no longer an issue. It’s easier to ignore, unless you’re the one on the receiving end.


But why is implicit bias just as important as overt and intentional bias? Well, it has real and significant consequences, but we’re far less likely to notice it and take it seriously. For example, people of colour are less likely to receive pain medication at hospital or have unfavourable treatment decisions, even when the physician doesn’t endorse any conscious racist beliefs. It influences decisions about hiring, with employers more likely to choose a white-sounding name over a black-sounding name from two identical resumes. And as we have seen so tragically, police shootings and excessive force are more likely to occur when the victim is black, even when the officer claims that they hold no racist beliefs. As well as this, day-to-day implicit racism still hurts the people who are being affected by it. Having taxi drivers ignore you, people clutch their bags as they walk by, security guards follow you around in the store, and having people assume that you don’t have the money or education to deserve a seat at the table. As a white person, none of these things have happened to you because of the colour of your skin.


Implicit bias is also stronger when you’re stressed or under a lot of cognitive load (i.e. have a lot on your mind). So here is where yoga and mindfulness can play a bit of a role! Bringing yourself back into your responsive parasympathetic nervous system and away from your reactive and stressed sympathetic nervous system allows you to rely less on implicit biases and more on intentional and rational thoughts. Being aware of your thoughts and learning to recognise your implicit bias means that you’re far more likely to be able to identify it and stop it from manifesting into behaviours that are damaging.


There is a lot of research being done in the field about other ways that we can reduce implicit bias, but the general consensus says the most effective thing you can do to is to be aware of it. Find a way to keep it at the forefront of your mind, not just when it’s in the media, but always.


I recently went to a wonderful workshop on implicit bias by expert in the field Dr Benjamin Reese Jr. He spoke about keeping a sticker somewhere or making your phone background as something that will remind you to check in with your biases. We started doing that in our office, and we really did end up having more conversations about bias and discrimination. Find a reminder that works for you and keep coming back to it. In the next section we’ll also talk about a few strategies that are being used based on different aspects and models of racism.



Are you in or out? The ins and outs of In-Groups and Out-Groups


Social psychology studies how we operate in groups. One foundational concept that underlies a lot of theories is that we all show in-group favouritism. This basically means that we prefer our friends, family, and peers over strangers. Sounds pretty common sense, right? Absolutely. From both an evolutionary and social perspective, we prioritise the survival of those closest to us because that is going to be the most beneficial to our own survival and wellbeing. Further, we’re wired to seek connection and belonging to fill our emotional needs, and we want to belong to a group that has favourable traits. What’s the best way to make yourself look better? To make someone else look bad. Hence, in-group favouritism and out-group degradation. This can contribute to having positive stereotypes about people who are like you, and negative stereotypes about people who aren’t like you.


This sense of competition between groups is also based in a fear of uncertainty and scarcity of resources. This taps into the affective part of our attitude formation. When you’re afraid that there isn’t enough to go around, it increases tension between groups. Even though now we live in a society where, in theory, there is enough to go around, the fear and tension remains. These feelings of scarcity are also amplified when our sympathetic nervous system is activated, i.e. our Fight or Flight response. This is another area where work in mindfulness can help us to reduce the impact of our stress response in how we think about others.


Let’s put this into a real-life scenario. One harmful comment that I hear a lot in Australia is:


“Aboriginal people get free stuff handed to them”


  • The affective component is based in fear and scarcity. If they get free stuff, there won’t be enough for me and my family. There may be feelings of unfairness or threat because the emotions aren’t based on facts

  • The behavioural component might come out in different ways. Making negative comments, dismissing Aboriginal rights violations, choosing to vote for politicians who don’t support Aboriginal issues, or having closed off and defensive body language around Aboriginal people. These behaviours might be unconscious or unintentional in some cases, but still have real consequences.

  • The cognitive component is how you see them as a group. "Aboriginal people aren’t like me, they’re different". Maybe you’ve seen Aboriginal people who are homeless or experience substance misuse, and you have unintentionally generalised that to the whole population. Maybe you’ve never met an Aboriginal person who is successful or has a similar life to you, so you haven’t been exposed to counter-stereotypical information.


But then when we look at the facts, we can intellectually understand that all Australians are entitled to the same types of support, like Medicare and Centrelink. We know that the additional supports are for additional need, and that the higher need is due to disproportionate health and social issues that are a result of long-term discrimination and oppression. Understanding these facts can help, but this isn’t always enough to counter the strong effects of affect and cognition.

Let’s explore some ways that we can start to address both implicit and explicit racism. These strategies aren’t meant to be chosen one or the other, but rather layering them, and using each of them in different situations to address bias, prejudice, and discrimination in different forms.

Strategy 1: Self-Regulation


Does understanding how bias works make you suddenly not susceptible to the subtleties of implicit racism? No, unfortunately. Does it help? Absolutely. Educating yourself on biases is an incredibly important step to be able to self-regulate your thoughts and emotions. Now, self-regulation doesn’t mean supressing thoughts. If I told you not to think of a purple elephant, what is going to be on your mind? Exactly. Pushing away thoughts is actually less effective than acknowledging them.


Self-regulating means being mindful of when you’re having automatic negative biases. Sitting with the feelings, acknowledging them, and making the conscious decision to not act on them. Not hating yourself for it or beating yourself up, but rather empowering yourself to choose your response. Using mindfulness skills can really help, just remember that this is an ongoing process that takes time and patience.


Parenting and education also come under this banner. Shaping ideologies starts happening from birth, and all through childhood there are critical developmental stages that influence what we believe as adults. But this might also include educating your peers or family. This doesn’t mean preaching or shaming anyone, but it means prioritising the ongoing conversation about diversity and inclusion, and making commitments to involve it in your work, social, and family life. At the end of this post we’ve got some useful tips for talking about race without it escalating into an argument.

Strategy 2: Re-Categorisation


If we favour our in-groups, rather than fighting against this instinct, let’s use it to change who our in-group is.


The group you categorise yourself in depends on the situation you’re in. You fiercely support your state’s sports team in national competitions, but when it’s team Australia versus another country, the states are united as fans. Another example is when you’re travelling. Have you ever run into someone from the same country or state as you when you’re surrounded by foreigners? Yep, you’re my best friend now, even if we never would have spoken to each other at home. Even as kids, you might split up games as girls vs. boys, or big kids vs. little kids, or my street vs. yours, even if that means that your in-group changes with every game. We’re constantly changing who we classify as our in-group and extending our in-group favouritism to them.


This video is a perfect and heart-warming example of what can happen when we re-categorise.





How do we intentionally re-categorise?


Look for the things you have in common with Black and Indigenous people

  • Think about the roles you play, like being a parent, a sports supporter, a singer, a foodie, or a coriander hater. More than that, we’re all human. We can all share feelings of grief, joy, anger, and love.

Creating shared identities

  • Taking steps to dissolve the “Us vs. Them” dynamics and giving them a seat at the table for the value that they bring as a person, not just for the colour of their skin. This doesn’t mean disregarding race and identity! It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Someone can be a proud Aboriginal with a strong connection to culture, and also share an identity with you as an intelligent businessperson (for example).

Goal interdependencies are a really useful tool, especially in bridging small groups

  • Working together towards a common goal is an incredibly powerful human connector. This might be in sport, business, school, or any number of activities that require cooperation. It reinforces the idea that you’re playing for the same team, and you’ll naturally want to associate more positive things with your teammates.

Strategy 3: De-Categorisation


Again, de-categorisation does not mean disregarding that person’s race or heritage. When we erase race from the conversation, we’re denying both their ties to culture, and the race-based struggles that they face. But it means seeing that person as more than just that. While re-categorising means including that person to be a part of your in-group, de-categorising involves acknowledging and accepting the ways that the person is different to you, and appreciating the many facets of who they are as a human.


When we spoke about stereotypes earlier, I mentioned that stereotypes are particularly perilous when they are based on limited information. We’re only considering the most salient (or what we see as the most significant) part of the person based on the group that we’ve categorised them in. But keep in mind that the group may not just be their skin colour, but a sub-group that reflects class, education, or health. Our biases intersect with each other in a complex web of unconscious (or conscious) prejudice and stereotype.


The out-group is typically seen as quite homogeneous, meaning that they’re all seen as similar to each other, while you’re more likely to see your in-group as diverse and individual. What we’re talking about when we de-categorise someone is humanising them.


I highly recommend the TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie, who talks eloquently about what happens when we only see one representation of a person or a group of people.



How do we intentionally de-categorise?


Tell stories

  • Have you ever seen a fundraising campaign from a big charity? They could throw shocking statistics at you about the rates of poverty or disease, and sometimes they do. But more often than not, you’ll be faced with a big pair of brown eyes telling you a deeply personal story of struggle. It is significantly easier for us as humans to care about one person we feel like we know than a thousand hypothetical people in a statistic. Relating to another human releases a neurochemical called Oxytocin in our brains that makes us more loving and compassionate. Stories are an incredibly powerful way to see someone as a person who is worthy of love and care.

Empathy

  • Along with stories comes understanding that person’s experience as a person of colour. Listening and respecting the intricacies of how biases and prejudice impacts a person’s life. While you likely won’t be able to understand exactly how they feel, you can empathise with the pain and hurt that comes along with that.

Seek diversity

  • Intentionally expose yourself to different types of people. This means consuming media that tells stories from different perspectives, reading opinions that differ from yours, and being a little bit critical of the mainstream ideals that you’re presented in the media. And this leads us nicely onto our next strategy!

Strategy 4: Contact and Representation


This point is closely related to both re-categorisation and de-categorisation. We want to be able to see people as human beings rather than a stereotype, which means being exposed to both things that we have in common with others, and the diversity between us.


I grew up in a pretty ethnically homogenous area, and I didn’t even meet an Aboriginal person until I was in my early 20s. I was always passionately anti-racist in my conscious opinion, but it was a massive learning curve to go through cultural awareness training and working in an Aboriginal organisation. For me, contact with real people and stories was a huge part of my journey to start questioning my underlying assumptions.


Contact with the out-group has been shown to be a really effective way to reduce the effects of bias and discrimination. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it can be a tool to use.

Contact can happen in 4 ways:


Personal

  • Personal contact is the most effective way to break down barriers. Being able to share experiences and use some of the re- and de-categorisation strategies. It is vital in this contact that the situation is equitable. In other words, doing what you can to remove any power imbalances or external factors that will make it harder to relate on a person-to-person level.

Extended

  • Seeing that your in-group members share an in-group with someone you perceive to be the out-group. In other words, your friends are also friends with people of colour. You can be that friend, or you could seek out that friend!

Imagined

  • Believe it or not, imagined contact can actually help. Even thinking about what it might mean to be a Black or Indigenous person, doing your best to learn about and relate to stories, and getting comfortable with the idea of being friends or peers with a member of that group. A lot of the re- and de-categorisation work can also be done if you aren’t able to have real life contact with a Black or Indigenous person.

Media

  • You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about ‘Representation’ in media and pop culture. Disney’s first Black princess, TV series introducing characters that are gay or transgender, and movies showing people from different faiths. This is a fantastic first step to celebrating diversity and exposing people to out-groups in a way that could facilitate storytelling. However, it is vital that this representation involves counter-stereotypical information. A lot of our humour and comedic effect is based on stereotypes, and I’m not saying we need to completely abolish it. But if we’re going to use stereotypes, we need to be really critical of how they’re used. I want to see beyond offensive jokes, archetypes, and character moulds, and have real people on my screens, with real dynamics, real struggles, real passions, and real experiences.

  • And when it comes to news media, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, where biased reporting is a real and serious issue. We could dive into this as a topic in itself, but the overall message is to keep being critical, and challenging the ideas and representation that you see.

Having tough conversations with others about racism without ruining family dinner


I get it, these topics are really emotive. You’re angry at the situation, you’re frustrated that people around you are still saying racist things, and you might be overwhelmed with the amount of information and media around it all.


But one of the most important things you can do as an ally is to have conversations with those around you. Having those conversations without having a full-on politics war in the kitchen is another challenge altogether. Trust me, I nearly ruined Christmas one year when someone brought up asylum seekers… But I’ve learned since then!


So here are some tips to help make those conversations a little more productive and a little less stressful! They aren’t magic, and you will probably still have conversations that go off the rails. Be prepared for difficult chats and maybe feeling hurt or upset by the outcome, but don’t let this put you off because it's really important work.

These tips are again based on concepts in psychology and mental health, like moral threat, shame, and social identity.


Try not to make people feel threatened or defensive

  • The number one thing I see that divides people is hostility and shame. Invoking shame in someone is a sure-fire way to guarantee they’re not going to agree with you. When you make someone feel like they’re a bad person or have morally failed, you’re attacking their most vulnerable place- their identity. And people will armour up and protect their identity at all costs. I understand that seeing racism might make you feel fiery and angry but managing this reactivity in yourself will help the person you’re talking to feel less reactive. People have a lot less compassion, empathy, and cognitive ability when they’re angry because they’re usually in their ‘Fight or Fight’ sympathetic nervous system, so getting your message across will be very difficult.

  • Managing your own reactivity is hard. Many people assume that mindfulness is a way to make you ‘Zen’, but that’s not the whole story. Mindfulness can also be a way to be aware of your strong emotions and learning to channel them in a way that is powerful without being overwhelming.

  • This also means watching your tone! It’s easy to let the sass or sarcasm sneak in but try to keep your tone friendly and non-threatening.


Make sure that person feels like you’re in the same in-group, and that you’re starting from a place of peace

  • Again, if that person already feels like you’re about to argue with them, their shields are going to be up and ready for battle. Remember, this is not you versus them, this is the two of you versus racism. Subtly reminding that person that you’re both from the same group and share similar values facilitates a level of conformity and peacekeeping. During the conversation, it can be helpful to weave in moments of reality to help ground you both, and perhaps even bring reprieves of light-heartedness or normality into the conversation.


Highlight the ways that you both share the same beliefs, and actually be open to hearing beliefs that differ from yours

  • Leading someone to the point is a lot more effective than lecturing them on the point. So by saying something like “Okay I can see we disagree on defunding the police force, but we both agree that there is work to be done to reduce the amount of police brutality, right? What sort of things do you think might work?”, or “We’re going round in circles in this conversation. I think we can agree that everyone deserves a right to safety and freedom”, or “Okay we agree on these points, and I can see where you’re coming from with that argument, but these statistics show that unfortunately, this is what is happening.”. Sometimes re-phrasing or re-framing someone’s point can give them a chance to disagree with it and revisit their own argument in a way that isn’t calling them out or accusing them of being wrong.


Normalise the process of learning with empathy

  • “I actually didn’t learn about that until recently myself” is a hugely helpful phrase when you’re trying to connect with someone. Realising that you’re wrong about something can send the shame response off the handlebars and having someone show you empathy and relatability can prevent that spiral into defensiveness. Remember, you can’t have a productive conversation with someone who is feeling shame.


Pick your battles

  • This doesn’t mean biting your tongue or not pulling someone up on something racist. But people can only take on so much at once, and you don’t want to sacrifice an inch by trying to take a mile. Small wins are fantastic! If you can reach a common ground with someone that is less harmful than it was before, and that person had a positive experience with you, they’re going to be more open to talking to you about it again!

  • Part of this is knowing when to call it quits when a conversation gets heated. Pushing your point when the other person has disengaged can sometimes do more harm than good. Try to end the conversation by affirming any common ground you have, like agreeing on basic human rights, and then try to leave on some sort of positive. If the conversation is with a loved one, try to find a way to repair the relationship by reminding them that you don’t hate them just because of one argument. Strengthening the relationship might make them more likely to be open in the future.


Take care of yourself

  • You can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t have productive conversations when you’re overwhelmed or exhausted. But you need to understand that if you’re a white person, it is a part of your privilege to be able to ‘turn off’ or ‘take a break’ from the conversation. For Black and Indigenous people, there is no turning off. But there is a difference between taking time to recharge and self-care when you’re distressed, and burying your head in the sand because you’re uncomfortable. Make sure you’re reflecting on which one you’re engaging in.


I hope you’ve found this post helpful. I really encourage you to seek out Black and Indigenous voices on this important matter, and keep working towards your journey with your own biases.


With a plethora of resources available at the moment, I know it is easy to get overwhelmed. These three resources I’ve personally found really helpful to grasp a foundation of knowledge around Black and Indigenous issues. I also encourage you to connect with your local advocacy groups, follow activists on social media, and try to watch and read content created by people of colour to keep learning about race and bias.

The official Black Lives Matter website has tonnes of new, information, resources, petitions to sign, and funds to donate to

https://blacklivesmatter.com/

Reconciliation Australia is the key body involved with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues around the country. Their website has information about what schools and organisations can do to promote reconciliation.

https://www.reconciliation.org.au/

Common Ground is an amazing resource that is great for understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in simple and easy to understand posts.

https://www.commonground.org.au/

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