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Psychological Perspectives on Racism in America

George Floyd Tribute Mural

The murder of George Floyd — and the widespread emotional reaction to his death — has forced us all to reflect on the direct and indirect violence that Black Americans continue to experience on a daily basis. As much as it opens fresh wounds, it also opens up a much-needed dialogue on just how far we still need to go to achieve true racial equality in America.

While we typically apply Material's behavioral science expertise toward helping brands understand consumer motivations, we can also apply it toward helping more people understand the complexities of racist attitudes and behavior. In this post, our Pragmatic Brain Science® team shares some psychological concepts and suggested readings that can help us make sense of these recent events. As behavioral scientists, when people act in ways that are hard to comprehend, we look to understand what might motivate their behavior in an effort to arm ourselves with the knowledge to bring about change.

What is racism? 

Racism is complex. It is an interplay between prejudice (negative feelings towards an individual based on group membership), stereotypes (beliefs about the characteristics members of a group possess) and discrimination (negative actions towards members of the group). An instance of racism may involve one, two, or all three components.

Explicit racism vs. implicit racism

In our current moment, there are plenty of examples of explicit racism, wherein the individual is aware of his or her prejudice and stereotypes and discriminates accordingly. No less problematic are the many instances of implicit racism, where people hold negative feelings or beliefs of which they may not be consciously aware, and thus may be unaware of how such feelings and beliefs influence their behavior. As a function of being part of a society in which racism is deeply entrenched, we all likely hold some implicit racial biases.

More on racial attitudes in America:

Implicit and explicit attitudes toward African Americans and Barack Obama during Obama’s presidency

More on implicit racism and implicit bias:

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

Biased: Uncovering The Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do

Policing and bias:

Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing

Can Cops Unlearn Their Unconscious Biases?

Changing implicit biases:

A Habit Based Approach to Racial Bias

Is This How Discrimination Ends?

The silent effects of racism

Racism literally costs Black Americans their lives, as is evident in the cases of Mr. Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. Racism also affects the lives of Black Americans in ways that are less obvious and direct, but can similarly inflict pain in their own ways.

Microaggressions, for example, are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights, insults, and indignities that individuals face because of their group membership. For instance, a white woman grabbing her purse when a black man enters an elevator is a commonly cited microaggression. Experiencing microaggressions can correlate to poorer physical and mental health. Even without experiencing a negative interaction, simply knowing that there are negative stereotypes about one’s group can be threatening. Stereotype threat is fear of reinforcing a stereotype and being made aware of your belonging to a stereotyped group may impact performance. The mere mention of being a member of a stereotyped group — African Americans or women, for example — can negatively impact standardized test or other academic performance.

On the toll of microaggressions:

I Have Not Missed the Amy Coopers of the World

These Black Nature Lovers Are Busting Stereotypes, One Cool Bird at a Time

On stereotype threat:

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do

Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap

Effects of stereotype threat, stress, and more on minorities:

Internal and External Challenges Faced By Women and Ethnic Minorities That Make Them More Vulnerable At Work

Impacts on health:

How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health

Emotional exhaustion and burnout

Experiencing high levels of persistent stress has widespread impacts on health. It can lead to burnout, which results in feelings of hopelessness and despair. Stress causes physical and cognitive impairments and increases susceptibility to chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure.

Every day, Black Americans experience higher levels of stress than their white counterparts, stress that has been exacerbated by a pandemic that disproportionately impacts people of color, and the recent spate of racist violence and behavior across the US. Many people of color may be facing emotional exhaustion, manifest in physical and mental fatigue, and need time and space for emotional and physical healing.

Research shows that in times of crisis, consuming high amounts of media have been linked to increased anxiety and depression. Also in times of crisis, the emotional lift you feel after receiving help is nearly equal to the emotional lift felt when helping others. It’s important to allow yourself time off and to lean on others when you need a break. When you are emotionally recharged, support those around you who need a break.

Self-care during these painful weeks:

Self-Care Tips for Black People Who Are Struggling With This Very Painful Week

Disproportionate effects of stress and disease on black communities:

Stress was already killing black Americans. Covid-19 is making it worse.

How social unrest affects mental health:

Mental health during and after protests, riots and revolutions: A systematic review

Understanding influence and norms

Your behavior is both influenced by and influences those around you through norms, shared standards for behavior and conduct. Norms are upheld by members of society, but those with high social status have the ability to normalize new behaviors. Social status is often ascribed to those with dominance (e.g. money and power), but people also gain status through being respected, and the social closeness of the influencer has an impact on how eagerly their behaviors are adopted.

Social media mavens, community leaders, managers, and businesses have the opportunity to normalize conversations about bias and privilege, amplify the voices of people of color, and set new standards for acceptable behavior.

How technology can influence norms:

This researcher programmed bots to fight racism on Twitter. It worked.

How norms can rapidly change:

Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Marriage Changed Perception of Norms, Despite Stable Personal Beliefs

Changing behaviors, norms, and habits is challenging work, and we hope we’ve offered a few thought starters, as well as some personal invitations to heal during an incredibly challenging time.

Have thoughts to share about these concepts? Want to share reading recommendations of your own? Please leave a comment, or contact us.


About the Author

Collette has over 10 years of experience conducting behavioral science research. As SVP of Material's Pragmatic Brain Science Insitute, she specializes in applying behavioral science theory and methods to market research. Prior to her career in market research, Collette was a professor of psychology at Syracuse University where her work addressed stereotypes, attitudes, identity, and group interaction. Collette received a B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Profile Photo of Collette Eccleston