Racial tension is amongst us. Even if you do not feel directly affected by it, it’s likely on your mind, or, in the back of your mind. How could it not be after all, as it swirls around us in many ways? The magnifying glass is upon all of us to contemplate: how is racism affecting our fellow citizens? How racist am I?
Most likely, you find yourself grappling with the idea nonwhite citizens are treated unfairly, in comparison to white citizens, in our justice system. We don’t want to believe it. Current polling shows more than 70 percent of African Americans, but only 38 percent of White Americans, believe racism played a role in the tragic events between police officers and African American men in recent months.
Perhaps even harder to think about, perhaps even deeper to think about, is our own racism.
Whether we like it or not, most of us have ingrained biases and prejudices against others based upon their gender, color of their skin, religious practices and sexual orientation. For some it’s a little, for some it’s a lot.
The good news is, research shows: most of us don’t like this about ourselves. Many of us are actively trying to overcome our stereotypes and prejudices. Even more, when pushed to consciously describe our beliefs, how many Americans state a person’s skin color, gender, religious beliefs and sexual orientation, tell us little about who the person is inside. Many of us truly want all people to be treated equally.
So then, why do we have these unconscious prejudiced thoughts? Prejudice thinking tends to be ingrained early in life. Based upon when we were born, what the attitudes of our parents were, where we live in the country, and how our life experiences led us to confront these biases, we have certain levels of prejudice. When events occur, we rely on these old, unconscious thoughts, to help us understand what has occurred. The brain likes to generalize. We often don’t even realize we are doing this.
For instance, if you are old enough to read this article, chances are you were raised at a time when most doctors were white males. Even in 2014, when 70 percent of Americans hear the word “doctor” they jump to the conclusion the doctor is a white male. This is despite the fact 48 percent of doctors are female and more than 30 percent are non-white. We jump to this conclusion based upon unconscious beliefs. Yet, most Americans don’t choose their doctors based upon race or gender. So, while prejudicial thinking is ingrained in us, most of us do not want to actively think like this, nor do we make decisions based on our unconscious biases.
Importantly: most people don’t want nonwhite citizens to be treated unfairly or unequally.
We can be part of the solution.
Much of our prejudicial behaviors are based on bad habits: jumping to conclusions about others, jumping to generalizations about certain groups, laughing at racial jokes or comments, making these jokes or comments ourselves. When we stop to think about it, we don’t want to do these things. Catch yourself jumping to these old prejudices and generalizations, confront your thinking. This is a huge step toward stopping biased thinking.
When others make racist comments or jokes, don’t smile or laugh. Commit yourself to not making racial jokes or biased comments.
These might seem like small things for you to do in a nation struggling with such big tensions. I would argue they aren’t small at all. It will be contagious.
Racial tension is uncomfortable now, but it will lead us to positive change. And, that change will be good. For all of us.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.