When it comes to social justice, the discipline of psychology hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory. Instead, psychology’s history remains maligned by its use as a tool of power. It has been used to pigeon-hole and pathologise, to claim a ‘normal’ that looks all too much like those in charge. For many white people, outside the lived hurt of oppression, problems here have been hidden behind the so-called ‘objective’ language of science; as if psychology’s claims were somehow neutral, as if psychologists weren’t mostly a particular type of person, as if their research on bias and subjectivity in others didn’t apply to themselves. Familiar, too, are critiques pointing out how blind recourse to ‘science’ continues the claimed supremacy at the heart of the colonial project – simultaneously excluding and silencing those with a different take – as if ‘objective’ data alone could replace the difficult questions behind its collection: who collected it; from where or who; according to what assumptions, for what ends, and so on.
Despite this, the scientific method remains a powerful tool. At its best, scientific research offers a nuanced, accountable and rigorous take on the complexity that shapes our world. In its process of observation, reflection and dialogue, practitioners are empowered to see beyond the fast-paced and often-confusing movement of our individual lives and into a more collective, longer-term space. As a student of psychology, it is this perspective and insight that appeals most: the ability to go beyond our individual experiences; to learn, and to shape our responses in domains that have long suffered from short-sightedness, self-interest, or both.
One such domain is social inequality and the various ways in which this inequality falls along racial lines. I’m not going to pretend that science has all the answers, or that information alone can correct the cocktail of ignorance, self-interest and defensiveness that manifests as racism. But, in the tools of analysis and rigour, it demands a number of insights not immediately apparent to those like me, born white into our ‘normal’ (read: dominant) class. In sharing these insights outside the academic silos they’re usually found in, I hope to go beyond the kneejerk defensiveness that often accompanies white responses to allegations of racism, and into a realm in which we can distinguish structural influences from our personal selves and so learn how to listen, take responsibility, and change.
For all its possibility, language can be a sticky wicket. Comment sections rage with arguments over what counts as ‘racism’, with those opposed to addressing our current race-based inequality quick to call out any focus on ethnicity as ‘racist’ – an understanding (almost wilfully) at odds with that used by both researchers and, more importantly, those who actually suffer from racism.
As things stand, modern psychologists define racism broadly, encompassing the range of “ideologies, attitudes, and beliefs that help maintain and legitimise group-based hierarchy and exploitation.” What does this mean? Racism comes in many forms, but the key requirement is that it helps to continue and normalise the domination of one group over another. In the context of former British colonies like New Zealand, the dominant group is European in origin, and racism covers anything that helps to maintain their/our disproportionate control over both resources and the narratives used to protect them. Which is to say, racism (and prejudice more generally) isn’t just discrimination – treating individuals differently based on the social group they belong to – but discrimination in the context of a power imbalance that actively helps to keep that power imbalance in place. You can’t be racist to white people, because white people aren’t systematically oppressed for being white. It’s that simple.
This focus on power imbalances extends the scope of racism beyond extreme forms of prejudice-as-antipathy – in which racists are only those who actively hate and seek to persecute difference – and into a subtler, more pervasive space. One widely studied form is aversive racism, so named because those who exhibit it are ‘averse’ to being called racist, despite displaying what are ultimately racist behaviours. In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between explicit beliefs (the things we consciously think and say) and implicit biases (mental associations beneath the level of conscious awareness).
Implicit biases are formed subconsciously, as a product of the society we inhabit. In the context of race, they emerge from the countless, often subtle ways in which white people are depicted as competent, normal, efficient, and non-threatening, while people of colour are depicted as incompetent, aggressive, lazy and so on. For years these associations have been promoted and maintained in ways both deliberate and accidental: in person, online, in books, film, TV and music. They are, on one level, the reason that positive representation is so important (similar research confirms implicit biases against women and other misrepresented groups). But research here also reminds white people that racism exists outside of our conscious and expressed beliefs.
Aversive racists aren’t explicitly racist. They don’t engage in open discrimination or support the KKK. But in ambiguous situations, or where other factors allow them to justify their choices as ‘non-racist’, their implicit racial bias comes through. For example, in a study investigating how race affects employment opportunities, Black Americans who clearly met the credentials for a role were hired at the same rate as White Americans. Aversive racists don’t think black people are inferior, so when a qualified black candidate comes along, they’ll hire them, no problem. But when the candidates’ qualifications are less clear, implicit biases kick in, and a black candidate is less likely to get the job than an equally qualified white candidate. If asked, the reason will never be race; the white candidate was just “a better fit” or had “that little bit extra.” But as experimental work and the broader perspective offered by statistical analyses makes clear, it’s race that guides the choice.
Another way in which racial inequalities are maintained is via in-group favouritism and the inescapable privileging of people we’re connected to. ‘Look out for your group’ might be a deep evolutionary drive, reflecting the many thousand years in which humans lived and cooperated in small social groups, but its modern application is tied up in created narratives of racial division, existing inequality, and the more explicitly racist past that birthed them both.
As with aversive racism, in-group favouritism doesn’t require an explicit intention to help members of your ethnicity or indeed, hinder those of another. Instead, Professor Marilyn Brewer argues that racist outcomes can simply emerge from the implicit biases those in power have towards favouring people of their own race; for example, extending extra privileges to them and giving them the benefit of the doubt, while withholding such benefits from others.
This omission-based racism is harder to spot than its more explicit twin, making it both under-discussed and under-addressed. But as legal scholar Linda Krieger points out, it is exactly the absence of the positivity normally extended to in-group members that produce systemic discrimination in workplace promotions. This can take the form of, for example, “not being assigned a particular account, not being introduced to important people, or not receiving encouragement, training, or other forms of mentoring.” Given that existing inequality makes white people more likely to occupy positions of discretionary power (think judges, bosses, councillors etc.) it’s quite easy to see how such inequality might be maintained, even without those in power ‘hating’ minorities or thinking that they’re privileging those who look like them. As countless people of colour have told us, being nice just isn’t enough.
As a complex social phenomenon, racism has numerous pathways, and manifests in different (though often interacting) ways. While some racists fit the explicit, full-of-antipathy mould, aversive racism explains how socially-learned implicit biases can produce racist outcomes in situations of ambiguity or stress, even without a view of oneself as ‘racist’ or an intention to be so. Similarly, research on in-group favouritism suggests how racial inequality can persist, even in the absence of the negative out-group stereotypes that helped to create it (see also: colonial dispossession). Taken together, the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs allows us to see racism as a structural issue, both created by, and creating, the world around us.
For white people, these findings offer a way to understand racism beyond any views we hold of our individual selves as ‘not racist’, starting the process of de-centring that is crucial to improved racial justice. However, such a shift represents the start, not an end. If part of the problem with in-group favouritism and aversive racism is that one specific in-group has far more power and resources than others, then it follows that there must be a shift towards increased diversity in positions of power, and a transfer of wealth to those without. As members of oppressed groups have been saying forever, society’s racism won’t be fixed by nicer oppressors, but by a redistribution of resources and control, empowering those dispossessed to speak and determine their own lives, on their own terms. Resistance here is likely to be significant, but addressing it holds the promise of a better world for all. In the words of Fred Moten, “The coalition [against racism] emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognised that it’s fucked up for us… this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly.”