Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Psychology of Racism

Racism has been amongst the news a great deal in recent times, so I wanted to do an article examining the mind processes of racism and what it is about humans that seems to make us so prone to racist attitudes and behaviour.

Its a simple place to start but what exactly is racism? The Oxford Dictionary describes it like this:

  • The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
  • Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
Or to put it another way, prejudging a person's characteristics depending on their race. This goes hand in hand with stereotyping, pigeon holing often large groups of people into one set of traits, for example that all Scottish people eat haggis and drink whisky, or that all Irish people wear green and have bad tempers. Stereotypes can be positive or negative, but it is the negative stereotypes that can lead to harmful beliefs such as racism.

So why do we humans have such a tendency to stereotype? explains it like so:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly. If we did not create categories, our entire life would be a buzzing mass of confusion. In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

So we create categories to group things into to be able to make sense of our environment easier. From within our own species we group people as a survival instinct; those persons in our group and those that are outside our group. This behaviour is evident in the animal kingdom too, where primates are extremely vicious toward those of the 'out group' while doing everything they can to protect their 'in group'. (read more here ) Horses have also been known to shun creatures of their own kind of a different colour coat, for instance if there was one white horse amongst a group black horses the white horse would be at the bottom of the pecking order, and it is the same for many different groups of animals. Evolutionary speaking perhaps this is all to do with the inherent goal of keeping one's own gene pool strong for the future, and the fear of extinction from the hands of an out group.

So as humans we categorise our world to make it simpler, but also to order it the way we want it. We inherently seek to pass on our characteristics to the next generation and make an environment where those characteristics are the dominant feature of that group. We do this by protecting our in group and seeing our clan more favourably than outside clans as a mode of self preservation. 

Many wars throughout history have been fought on a territorial/racial context. One of the dark, often unspoken truths about these wars is the brutal aftermath of battle. Not only would the victorious party kill a great proportion of their opponents population, both man, woman and child, but rape on a grand scale would also take place, in effect altering the genetics of that population in one fell swoop. This happened not only in ancient battles such as the Sacking of Rome, but also in more recent history where it is believed at least 100,000 German women were raped in Berlin alone during the aftermath of WW2 and Soviet occupation, where it has been estimated 2m German women were raped overall throughout the country and surrounding lands. Read more here.

But in an educated modern society - surely there is no place for racism? In an affluent society there appears to be less racism and prejudice, but in times of hardship and economic slow down it appears racism rears its ugly head (read more). The recent London riots could be viewed in a similar vein, as could the rise of Nazi Germany, where vicious opinion flourished seemingly as a result of the country being left in tatters post WW1 and unemployment was at its peak. When a group has less resources the dynamics within the group/society alters, and the evolutionary battle of survival kicks in. The dominant gene pool will wish to defend itself against the minorities, and thus they become marginalised and discriminated against in nature's cruellest manner.

Is there a way to stop racism? reports Gordon Allport's theory of inter-group contact from the 50's. Allport hypothesised that contact between racial groups in positive circumstances would reduce social prejudice; conditions being shared goals and social norms, equal social status and the support of local authorities. I would add to that mixed race schooling being of high importance as in childhood we manifest our deepest held beliefs, so to get these beliefs correct and healthy early on would be an obvious advantage. Having role models of mixed race is another tool for anti-racism, especially in films, TV and sports where so many people have a combined interest. 

I think we have seen big changes in the last 30 years and an overall decrease in outright racism in the western world. Unfortunately though we still have groups of people who do not mix racially as much as they could do. Taking for instance the United Kingdom, there are areas that are predominately white, others that are Asian and others again that are predominantly Afro-Caribbean. In the USA it is quite the same, but also with large Chinese communities in most cities. Grouping racially and culturally seems the natural thing to do for humans, but in the long run this is what causes racism, especially in times of slow economic growth and poverty when there is a perceived lack of resources within society.

I think that until this problem is resolved there will always be a degree of racism, whether open or as an undercurrent because it seems a natural part of make up as animals in competition with one another. With this in mind racism is certainly something that needs to be seriously considered in town planning as well as every aspect of local government if the future is ever going to be racism free. There needs to be an overall greater sense of mankind and less upon the subcategories we have been divided into.   

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