The Social Psychology of Racism

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

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.