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The Psychology Behind Racism

Racism: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

For hundreds of years race has played a huge role in how people have been treated and perceived. From the European colonization in Africa in the 1880s to the forced incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, skin color has seemed to trigger a series of negative emotions and behaviors that almost always led to radical actions being taken by those who feel superior. For example, the apartheid in South Africa, a period of racial segregation created by the white minority rule clearly demonstrates how the superiority felt by white South Africans drove them to establish a social and political system that preserved their white domination while simultaneously expanding racial segregation. 

Looking back at the long and sickening history of racism, one must begin to question its origin and root. Though some people believe that racism may be innate, most of the current research follows that racism is actually not biological but rather a “social paradigm” that may lead to the development of stereotypes, distrust and fear. In fact, a study carried out by Eva Telzer of UCLA by which amygdala studies where performed on children revealed that racial sensitivity of the amygdala (part of the brain responsible for emotions, memory and instincts) does not kick in until the age of 15, thereby allowing the researchers to conclude that the “findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”

Psychologically speaking, racist behavior is initiated when people see others as less than them and view themselves as being superior. Furthermore, when an entire system is constructed to support a certain belief, people will begin to believe it because the environment around them demonstrates that.

Being labelled as a racist is something that many people would not want to experience because they believe that they are simply not racists. Although, implicit racial biases exist and most people remain unaware of them. In fact, as many as 80% of people in Western societies possess “various subtle racial biases”. People can behave in a discriminatory way without realizing that they have racist values, or they can develop attitudes and stereotypes from socialization that prompt them to treat others differently based on their race, which is an example of implicit racial bias. To add on, individuals who feel victimized due to racism tend to become depressed, fearful and anxious. When they feel like someone is going to threaten them because of the color of their skin, they will become hyper-vigilant and fearful all the time which could impact their physical health by causing them to develop high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Research exemplifies that there are psychological motives that appear to contribute to racism. For example, studies have shown that sometimes people use discriminatory attitudes and behaviors to boost their self-esteem. Hence, when people’s self-esteem is threatened, racist manners enable them to restore that esteem. To add on, in the case of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), professor Clay Routledge states that people who join the KKK or are KKK sympathizers are motivated by the feeling of superiority and work to establish self-worth and the only efficient way to do so is by being racist. Also, other psychological motives that may contribute to racism include positive distinctiveness, survival and meaning which are explained in detail here.

All in all, racist behavior seems to have strong ties to our psychological state even if we remain unaware of it. Racism in all of its forms can never be considered to be something positive, yet we still have not found a way to completely eradicate it, at least not on an institutional level. Therefore, it is “within our authority to foster a social order whereby race is not a profound construct.”

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Aisha E. AlSaqabi
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Just a 19 year old girl from Kuwait with a lot on her mind.

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