Culture August 31, 2017
It's not that difficult to understand.
In our current political reality, the ideas of discrimination, oppression, racism and prejudice are extremely prevalent. The problem, however, is that a lot of people don’t understand the difference between these terms.
For example, if you believe in “reverse racism,” a term used to describe prejudice perpetrated by minority groups, then you don’t actually know what racism is. Racism is not just about hating a certain group of people (i.e. Caucasians). It’s an institutional system that keeps people in minority groups oppressed.
But we get all of this gets confusing, so we’re going to take a step back and break it down for you.
Before we can get into the difference between racism and prejudice, let’s discuss the definition of each term.
Racism, as defined by dictionary.com, is:
“A belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to others.”
But racism is also more than just personal biases.
Racism is systemic. Institutional racism keeps Black graduates from getting jobs because of their name. Institutional racism creates disparities in neighborhoods and communities.
According to an APA study, Black children aren’t afforded the same security and protections as white children.
“The present work tested the hypothesis that black children enjoy fewer of the basic human protections afforded to their peers because the category ‘children’ is seen to be a less essential category (specifically, less distinct from adults) when it is applied to Black children, particularly in contexts where Black children are dehumanized,” the APA writes.
This kind of treatment extends beyond the home, as well. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that white people had to send out 10 resumes before they got one callback, whereas Black people had to send out 15 resumes before they got a callback.
“This would suggest either employer prejudice or employer perception that race signals lower productivity,” said the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The study also found employers who follow affirmative action laws or who state to be “Equal Opportunity Employers” did not discriminate any less than those who didn’t.
Although it may seem like systems for equality are in place, it’s not something that can easily reverse the racism deeply rooted in our society.
Prejudice, on the other hand, is a preconceived opinion against someone that isn’t based on actual experience or reason. If you, for example, decide that you don’t like Asians because you think all Asians are rude (even though you’ve only ever met one Asian person), then you are prejudiced towards Asians.
So when it comes to the idea of reverse racism, people are talking about prejudice, not racism.
You may be prejudiced against Caucasian people, but you’re not being racist towards them. White people can’t experience racism because they aren’t systemically oppressed.
The system we discussed in the previous section benefits Caucasian people. In just the example of employment, the chances of Caucasians getting hired is much higher than a person of color’s chances.
Being racist isn’t about the people you associate with. It’s about your behavior towards people of color in general. So having that “token Black friend” doesn’t remove you from the problem if you don’t treat other POC the same way you treat your friend.
A Mother Jones article explained that explicit racists are just a small part of the problem. “Implicit prejudices,” which refer to subconscious biases, also contribute to the issue.
New York University neuroscientist David Amodio talked to Mother Jones about his expertise on the psychology of intergroup bias. He explained that in his research, white participants might have studied to have positive attitudes towards Black people. Once it came time to compare how they responded to pictures of white people compared to black people, they began seeing the effects of implicit prejudices.
A number of studies have proved that implicit biases exist. Mother Jones’ article discusses a study where scientists ask participants to categorize a word as either positive or negative. So, most people would categorize happy as positive and fear as negative. Right before the word appears, a picture of a black person or white person would flash on the screen.
“What we find over and over again in the literature,” Amodio told Mother Jones, “is that if a black person’s face was shown really quickly, then people are quicker at categorizing negative words than positive words that follow it. Versus if a white face was shown really quickly, people are usually quicker to categorize the positive words, compared with the negative words.”
A research summary by Stanford University’s Recruitment to Expand Diversity and Excellence Program stated, “about 75 percent of whites and Asians demonstrated an implicit bias in favor of whites compared to Blacks.”
Mother Jones reported that the problem comes from how our brains have evolved to categorize the world to simplify it by noticing patterns in complex things.
When we encounter a stranger, our brain subconsciously tries to figure out whether the person is a friend or foe.
These categorizations are based on race because of the culture we live in. Amodio told Mother Jones that this categorizing function of our brain has existed for as long as the human mind has, but the categories of Latino, Black, white and so on are a social phenomenon.
So, the racial stereotypes in our society shape this categorizing tendency.
So while we have these stereotypes programmed in our brains, there are still people who choose to act on their racism and people who don’t. Mother Jones explains that this is due to basically fear conditioning in the amygdala.
When we look at someone who is of a different race, the amygdala in the brain activates. The amygdala’s job is to predict the threatening parts of our environment and condition us to stay away from it.
Our amygdala also works faster than our conscious thoughts have time to react, which could lead to people acting on biased behaviors in some form.
But when it comes to actually acting on biased and racist notions, people have more control.
Our frontal cortex keeps us from acting on impulses and reminds us to behave appropriately in social situations.
The idea of implicit biases doesn’t excuse explicit racist actions because we all have control over our behavior.
Amodio explained that people have the responsibility to be mindful of these stereotypes.
“I don’t really think humans have any good excuses for acting on their automatic biases,” Amodio said.
Racism is a combination of prejudice and power. Black people don’t have the power white people have gained since the beginning of America.
We can only institute change when people understand the conversation around racism and prejudice. When white people realize their prejudice holds power that keeps minorities oppressed, they can then work to change the system we live in.
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