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NZ Herald: "The psychology of modern racism"

Are Kiwis racist? That is the (age-old and recently hotly-debated) question.

Amid all the recent discussions following Taika Waititi's comments, I wonder if the psychology of prejudice can offer some insight.

Racism is a form a prejudice involving negative attitudes, feelings or behaviours towards members of a specific ethnic, "racial" or cultural group.

At its core, it is based on the idea that a) we belong to different social groups, based on physical features, geographic location, ethnic identity or cultural practices and that b) our own group is somehow better than the other groups.

The word prejudice is derived from the Latin words prae and judicium, which translates to pre-judgement.

In classic social psychology, prejudice is seen as having three components:

1. Cognitive or thinking - specific beliefs about a particular group, usually based on stereotypes, misinformation, or lack of information.

2. Affective or emotional – strong feelings that are usually negative about a specific group of people and the characteristics or behaviours they are thought to possess.

3. Conative or intentional – the intention to behave in certain ways towards a particular group.

We can add a fourth component which turns prejudice into discrimination.

A behavioural component is harmful words, actions or behaviours directed at certain groups, usually due to stereotypes and negative feelings.

Racism happens on a continuum.

It can range from the least invasive (unconscious bias or negative thoughts), to public displays (negative talk or aggressive actions), to structural or institutional inequalities, dehumanisation, and in the most extreme cases, to the systematic extermination of a particular group (or genocide).

Obviously, in Aotearoa, we are not dealing with dehumanisation (hopefully), or genocide.

We don't have state-imposed segregation, and racially motivated violent attacks are rare.

That's because, in contemporary society, overt acts of racism are generally no longer acceptable.

The way in which certain groups have been treated historically (think slavery, segregation, violence), is not something we put up with.

We also don't put up with one race overtly stating their superiority over other races. These actions are what social psychology calls hostile or old-fashioned prejudice – and they are no longer widespread or socially acceptable.

But this does not mean racism has disappeared. Research has robustly demonstrated that hostile racism has now been replaced by what's called new or modern racism. That is, the subtle thoughts, unconscious bias, or acts of micro-aggression we engage in when thinking about, reading about or being in the presence of those from a different culture or ethnic background. Modern racism is not based on blatant claims of "racial superiority", but is subtly mobilised in various ways.

For example, avoiding eye contact, crossing the road, being ever so slightly disrespectful when crossing paths with people from a different ethnic background, not taking someone as seriously because they have an accent or look different.

It can happen in our talk about people from different cultures. We might critique their way of doing things or question their world view.

We tend to unconsciously favour those who look, act and sound similar to us, while being critical, judgemental or avoidant of those who don't. Modern racism also happens when we claim that the reason various ethnic minorities or indigenous people are now over-represented in negative statistics, is solely based on their choices and actions. This view draws on a form of historical amnesia that seeks to erase the adverse effects that histories of colonisation or hostile racism have created. Another form of related modern racism is opposing affirmative action policies that seek to redress such historic injustices. The recent public disagreements about whether racism exists here or not, seems to be talking across each other about these two different models of racism. But, just because hostile racism is less prevalent, it does not mean that racism does not exist. And if we break it down, I think we will see that the cognitive, affective and behavioural components are still widespread. Think about this example. You're in a dimly lit carpark walking to your car one night, and you see a dark-skinned youngish man across the way in casual clothes – what is the immediate thought that pops into your head?

No matter how critically minded or enlightened you are, our society has conditioned you to think you might be in some kind of danger, which can lead to you feeling worried or apprehensive.

This might lead you to behave in a particular way, which you may not have if that person looked different. Perhaps you rush, avert eye contact, cross the car park as to not walk directly past this person.

You are unlikely to be verbally abusive or physically aggressively but those thoughts, feelings and actions – however mild or motivated by risk-aversion or self-preservation – are based solely on how someone looks or the colour of their skin. And the stereotypes associated with specific groups.

Another example is when employers get CVs from unusual sounding names – what is the immediate internal reaction? The almost unconscious reaction?

What about seeing a woman wearing a headscarf? What's the immediate reaction?

Split second negative judgements on all of the above are acts of racism. And, we all do it. As a nation, we need to acknowledge all forms of racism that may occur across our country and make it one of our national goals to "unlearn" the forms of stereotyping and prejudice that leads to racism and discrimination, however subtle. In of the most well-known classic social psychology experiments educator Jane Elliott demonstrated that racism is not inevitable. It is learnt. It is an irrational class system that can be based purely on arbitrary factors (such as eye colour, in her experiment).

We need to continue to cultivate real tolerance and understanding. We need to re-train our minds to not jump to conclusions about people just based on the way they look.

At the end of the day, we are all part of the human "race" – and while there is diversity, we are all much more similar than we are different.

Find original publication here.


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