By Alex Palmer
In 1958, the majority of Whites in the U.S reported that they would not be willing to vote for a qualified Black presidential candidate. By the 1990s, more than 90% of Whites reported that they would consider voting for a Black presidential candidate (Davis & Smith, 1991). In recent years, Whites have also been reported to be far less likely to associate Blacks with negative characteristics than they have been historically (Devine & Elliot, 1995). These and countless other studies seem to indicate that Americans are finally beginning to espouse racial justice.
Under this guise of newfound social egalitarianism, we are shocked when acts of police brutality are time and time again publicized in the media. Many of us preach that racism is essentially eradicated, save a few racist pockets of the country and a few inherently racist individuals. Yet, research on microaggressions (subtle racial slights underlying our everyday interactions) has shed light on the prevalence of implicit biases in our society. How can we explain this disparity between our claims of being unbiased and the actuality of the implicit and explicit racism that still permeate our society?
Psychological research demonstrates that while many of us feel a personal responsibility to live without prejudice, we often simultaneously feel pressured to appear unbiased or “politically correct.” Unfortunately, research indicates that unless our behaviors are purely motivated by a sincere, internal desire for self-approval rather than being influenced by rote responses to external pressure, racism will continue to permeate our society.
The election of Barack Obama caused some to speculate that we have entered a “post-racial” age. But any illusion that we dwell in a racially egalitarian society has been cast aside by widespread news coverage of disturbing racist events. One particularly memorable video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma surfaced in March 2015. Members of the fraternity were heard chanting, “There will never be a n-word in SAE! There will never be a n-word in SAE! You can hang ‘em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me! There will never be a n-word in SAE!” (Ellis, 2015).
Watching the gleeful faces of these fraternity brothers is chilling. My jaw dropped in disbelief when I first saw the video. I replayed the video so I could verify what I had seen. This event flies in the face of the egalitarian society we often imagine the United States having evolved to become; a nation where we have elected a Black president and have appointed multiple women to be Secretary of State. While living in the so called “Claremont Colleges bubble,” (a social sphere sheltered from many of the harsher realities of the “real world”) events as alarming as the SAE bus chant are easily dismissed as isolated incidents, or the product of a particularly racist pocket of the deep South far from Claremont. Yet, countless other events revealing deep-seated prejudice are publicized every year. In the past few months alone, many racist events have surfaced, ranging from the Whitman soccer players who wore blackface when impersonating the Jackson 5 to the defacing of a mural painted by the CMC Brothers and Sisters Alliance on Pomona’s Walker Wall. Moreover, a slew of cases of alleged racial profiling and police brutality directed against members of minority groups have emerged over the last 18 months.
Clearly, racism is alive and well in the 21st century. However, many people believe that these blatant acts publicized in the media represent the entirety of modern-day racism. People often claim that they have never encountered racism directly and that they only hear of dramatic events on the news. Many claim that racism is only a problem in certain areas of the country. But the overt aggression of “traditional” racism is not the totality of modern-day prejudice. A considerably subtler form of intolerance persists across our nation, infiltrating all social strata.
Derald Wing Sue, a prominent counseling psychologist at Columbia University, defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace…indignities…that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights or insults to the target person…” (Sue, 2010, p. 5). Often the perpetrator is unaware of their transgression. For example, a white woman at a political rally in the 2008 presidential campaign told John McCain, “I don’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab,” and McCain retorted, “…He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with. He’s not [an Arab].” Though McCain may have thought that he was acting commendably in his defense of Obama, implicit in his words was the assumption that an Arab could not be a “decent, family man.” Thus, unbeknownst to McCain, he was perpetuating harmful ethnic stereotypes by way of a microaggression (Sue, 2010, p. 5).
Research has demonstrated the prevalence of microaggressions in daily encounters. A study conducted at a large, primarily White university in the Midwest questioned groups of Black, Asian, and Latino students regarding their experience of microaggressions in residence halls. Over seventy microaggressions were reported. These microaggressions took the form of racial jokes and verbal comments, racial slurs written in shared spaces, the segregation of on campus spaces, unequal treatment, and the denial of racism. Students cited several examples of feeling uncomfortable and hurt by microaggressions committed by seemingly unaware friends (Harwood, Huntt, Mendenhall, & Lewis, 2012). The microaggressions noted in this study and countless similar studies indicate that the myth of black inferiority, or the false belief that Blacks are an inherently lesser race, exists today beyond seemingly isolated events of blatant racism. Historically, Black intelligence was overtly dismissed due to studies of “cranial capacity,” in which experimenters compared the skull sizes of different races. These researchers concluded that smaller skulls were indicative of lesser intelligence due to a lack of gray matter, and they claimed that Blacks had smaller skulls than Whites. Today, subtle slights to Black intelligence and traces of Social Darwinism (the idea that the “fittest” social group will thrive) persist through the attribution of Black presence on college campuses to affirmative action (Jones, 1991).
In the context of the subtle racism that occurs on college campuses, why are we, as college students, shocked when we hear about the SAE bus chant? Perhaps we are oblivious to the microaggressions that permeate our interactions and the pervasiveness of the myth of Black inferiority today, or perhaps expressing shock enables us to hold racism at an arm’s length. Through our condemnations, we categorize the prejudiced individual or group as an evil anomaly. We create a divide between the malicious racists of the world and our own egalitarian selves. In an era in which our society so blatantly condemns racism, we feel pressured to distance ourselves from racism and to ensure that those around us perceive us as unbiased.
A study conducted by Devine and Plant (2002) investigated people’s motivations to appear unbiased. Participants’ motivation to be unprejudiced was classified according to whether it was external (driven by a desire to appear prejudice free to others) or internal (driven by a personal desire to be prejudice free). Responses on measures of explicit and implicit bias were recorded. Implicit bias was measured using the Implicit Association Test and a sequential evaluative priming task, both of which measure the strength of automatic association between the Black and White races and positive or negative constructs in memory.
Subjects with solely internal motivation demonstrated low racial bias on both explicit and implicit measures, likely due to high levels of autonomy and self-determination. According to self-determination theory, people with higher levels of internal motivation exhibit more effective regulatory mechanisms. In other words, people with higher internal motivation better regulate racial bias. People with both internal and external motivation were shown to often report no explicit racial bias but demonstrate racial bias on implicit measures. Unsurprisingly, people with only external motivation were more likely to show explicit and implicit bias due to the fact that response to the explicit scale was anonymous (Devine & Plant, 2002).
Thus, our desire for the world to perceive us as prejudice free only succeeds at masking and burying racism. While this is clearly the case for people who possess no personal motivation to be unprejudiced, even those of us who possess an innate desire to be unprejudiced may still harbor implicit biases. Many of us who feel both an internal and external motivation to be free from racism are unconsciously biased despite consciously believing that we are unprejudiced. Only those of us who are predominately motivated by a personal, internal desire to be unprejudiced are consciously and unconsciously free of racism.
This research suggests that we can only combat racism if we truly believe it is wrong. We can only change if we truly believe racism is incongruent with our sense of self. Rather than viewing racism as a problem of particular people, we need to acknowledge that racism permeates our society, our communities, and ourselves even if we are not aware of it. Numerous studies demonstrate that implicit racism persists even amongst those of us who claim and believe we are not prejudiced (Devine & Plant, 2002). No matter how earnestly we protest, we may be guilty of a prejudiced unconscious.
In order to truly make forward progress, we have to look within ourselves and be open to the possibility of discovering our own unconscious racial bias. Only with honest introspection can we evaluate our motivations to be unbiased. Rather than holding racism at an arm’s length, we must fully embrace the discomfort of confronting its presence within ourselves.
So what can we do to combat the underlying racism permeating our culture and perhaps ourselves? Even if we do possess an external motivation to appear free of racial bias, we can still harness our internal motivation to fight racism by supporting and participating in movements for social change, and with time, move towards a dominant internal motivation for opposing racism. We can educate ourselves regarding the issues at hand, both at a national and campus level. What were the details of the most recent case of police brutality publicized? Why were the campus protest policies recently “clarified” by Claremont colleges’ administrations? We can reach out to each other and engage in the Black Lives Matter discussion. Numerous organizations on campus offer an outlet for discussion, such as the Students of Color Alliance at Pomona or the Brothers and Sisters Alliance at CMC. There are also countless classes offered on our five campuses addressing race relations in our society, such as The Psychology of the Black Experience at Pomona College.
To conclude, while it is important that members of all ethnicities join in on the fight against racism, it is truly imperative that Whites begin pulling their weight. The prevalent ideologies in our country are those held by the dominant sociocultural groups. Thus, having support from the dominant sociocultural group in the United States is essential to making strides in the fight against racism and overturning current hegemony. Bias plagues us all, White, Black, Asian, or Latino, as we are the products of our society and if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. In other words, without making conscious efforts to work against racism, we will likely succumb to the influence of implicit racism. It is up to us to decide whether we believe the current state of society reflects our own moral convictions.
Author’s note: Alex Palmer is a White, female Pomona College student from Newton, Massachusetts.
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