Posts tagged ‘racism’

January 10, 2013

Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part II

Earlier this week, I wrote about psychological essentialism, the idea that people tend to see certain categories as having an underlying essence that causes them to be what they are and to have the properties that they do. I gave the example of thinking that tigers are what they are because there is something inside them, DNA perhaps, which is responsible for their being tigers and having stripes and tails. Today, I want to discuss what all of this might have to do with racism.

It turns out that people think this way not just about natural kinds (like tigers and gold) but about social kinds as well. You can see this kind of thinking throughout history. For example, in the US the one-drop rule, the idea that any amount of African ancestry (that is, any amount of African blood—even one drop) makes one Black, was for some time a legally instituted definition of race. Although people may not have believed the blood metaphor literally, it is telling in its emphasis on an internal, undetectable, and biological determiner of social identity. We may no longer talk about drops of racial blood, but we still see this same kind of thinking today. Consider, for example, the attempt to analyze Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA for an explanation for his actions. We’re probably just as unlikely to find killer DNA as we are to find African blood, but the desire to explain differences between humans in terms of underlying, biological essences is strong.

But believing that people are different beneath the surface doesn’t itself explain prejudice and discrimination. So how do psychologists go from one to the other? As I mentioned at the end of my earlier post, psychological essentialism doesn’t stop at the idea that there is something deep inside that causes category membership. After all, the idea that a group of people has some deep, biological similarity implies lots of things about that group. People who have that belief are also likely to have a host of other kinds of beliefs about category memberships. They also tend to believe that category membership is unalterable, stable over growth, passed from parent to child, biologically based, and innate. Likewise, they may believe that category members share many features and that category membership is exclusive (for example, a person can belong to only one race), absolute (for example, a person either is or is not White; one cannot be a part member of a race), informative (tells you a lot about someone), and inherent (a real part of the world and not simply a social categorization). These beliefs have implications for how people think about and act towards people of different social categories.

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January 8, 2013

Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part I

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

There are a couple of posts that bring steady traffic to my blog, even though they written a long time ago and even though I have barely updated the blog since I wrote those posts. One of these is on the relationship between religion and racism. Racism is an important topic for psychologists, one with substantial application to our understanding of everyday social behavior. So there is a lot to say about it, and I would like to revisit it this week with a couple of posts on one of the psychological processes underlying racism: psychological essentialism. Today, I’ll explain what psychological essentialism is, and in the second post later this week, I will explain how it is linked to racism. 

What makes a tiger a tiger? Is something a tiger because it has black stripes, four legs, a tail, etc.? Or is there something deeper, something inside that makes it a tiger? If you are like most people, you probably believe that just having the features of a tiger (stripes, etc.) is not enough to be a tiger. After all, if I painted stripes on myself, crawled around on all fours, and taped a tail to my rear end, I wouldn’t be a tiger. No, there is something else, something invisible to the naked eye, something inside the tiger that makes it a tiger. If you agree, then you might be a psychological essentialist.

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June 3, 2011

Does Religion Cause Racism?

Birth of a Notion comic from Town Called Dobson

Birth of a Notion comic series from Town Called Dobson, about the history of racial prejudice in America

The title of this post is a pretty big question. Popular media accounts of links between religion and racism are not hard to find (for example, this recent story about a prison inmate suing to receive racist literature on the grounds that it is part of his faith). A recurring theme in discussions of racism and religion is the idea that religions are like “clans” and help us divide the world into people who are in our group and people who aren’t. This mode of thinking might spread from religion to other social categories, such as race. Thus, two things that at first don’t seem related (religion and race) are connected by our general tendency to think in an “us” versus “them” fashion. For sure, it’s not hard to think of examples of groups who promote both racial and religious hatred. The Ku Klux Klan is just one such group and also an example of when religion is associated with harm.

The question of whether religion causes racism is an important part of the public debate over whether religion is responsible for more harm or more good. It’s easy to come up with examples of both. Religion has been cited as a motivation for all kinds of harm, from the Crusades to the persecution of women. But it also is given credit for inspiring profound acts of charity and for leading to better health and longevity. The overall good and bad created by anything, of course, is enormously difficult to calculate, and it depends a lot on what you personally value (for example, is prejudice more or less important than longevity?). Smaller questions about individual goods and bad, however, are much easier to answer. So what does science have to tell us about religion and prejudice?

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