How We Become Racist - Humantold

How We Become Racist

Humantold February 18, 2021

Even in 2021, racism remains a constant and violent presence. In this article, we discuss how racism develops on a psychological and societal level.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”   - Nelson Mandela

This article is being written on January 7, 2021—not a full 24 hours following the violent riots and looting of the U.S. State Capitol building by supporters of President Trump. After the riots began, media and online commenters started making comparisons to the police's response and treatment of Trump supporters to the recent BLM protests from the summer of 2020. 

As an organization, Humantold does not support the rhetoric of this comparison. The BLM protests were in response to systemic racism, and the recent riot and violent attack on the US Capitol was made possible because of systemic racism. 

2020 saw a reemergence of focus around racism in the dominant culture, which (as will be explained in more detail later in this article) is mostly controlled by white people's perspective. The role racism plays in personal dynamics, institutions, and the media was an important topic of discussion among white people last year. 

 However, for people of color, racism has been a constant and ongoing reality for quite some time. Racist beliefs fuel hateful and dangerous actions and create systems that disproportionately affect people of color at all levels of society. Racism in the United States has been deeply embedded in dominant culture and daily life since well before the Declaration was signed. These conversations are necessary should we wish to build an equal and fair society for all people. 

We cannot cure a disease without fully understanding what it is and how it develops. Racism is a learned behavior and a multi-headed monster that manifests in many different forms. At its root, racism is a belief that "race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." This "belief" informs behaviors and attitudes that build an inherently prejudice and discriminatory society towards certain groups. 

The Psychology of Racism  

Even in 2021, many of us are still shocked by the seemingly constant and violent presence of racism. We live in a modern society that elected the first Black president a few years ago. Shouldn't we have eradicated this archaic bigotry? The evidence that we are far from eradication is plentiful, but it still seems to defy logic. 

There are a lot of questions about how racism continues to perpetuate through generations. The consensus among psychologists is that racism is a learned behavior. In their excellent and comprehensive study on the topic, Stanford psychologist Steven O. Roberts and New York University postdoctoral fellow Michael T. Rizzo explain that seven factors contribute to racism's continued presence in American society. 

  1. One way that racism builds at a psychological level is through what is called "categories." Categories are a way of organizing people into different groups. Racial categories are established at a young age and are reinforced by what Roberts and Rizzo call "generics," which are generalizations applied to a particular group. This type of labeling leads to stereotyping and discrimination because judgments about characteristics or behaviors are applied to all members of that racial group. 
  2. Factions are a direct result of categories. As categories create a grouping system for people, individuals within that group develop a preference and loyalty towards others in their group—this is a faction. Roberts and Rizzo explain the consequences of this kind of mentality, "Critically, the desire to establish and maintain one's position within a group can also lead individuals to prioritize ingroup loyalty and group norms over moral concerns for fairness and inclusion." People who identify strongly with their faction are more likely to negatively perceive outside groups, especially if their group experiences stress or anxiety. 
  3. Policies of racial segregation have led to the physical separation of whites and people of color. Examples of this are redlining and public housing—both of which are discriminatory policies that were put in place by the federal government that greatly influenced African American housing opportunities and locations. Without interracial contact, a phenomenon called "perceptual narrowing" occurs in children that supports the development of racists beliefs as they grow older. If a child grows up in a racially homogenous environment, they form a visual (and later social) preference for a specific racial group. Further, a lack of familiarity with other racial groups at a young age promotes the belief that interracial relationships are undesirable. Discriminatory policies have a direct impact on the psychological development of racist attitudes.
  4. The hierarchy of American society is ordered by race. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76.3% of American citizens are white. White Americans are the numerical majority, and disproportionately occupy positions of power. In their paper, Roberts and Rizzo point out that 98% of U.S. Presidents have been white, and 73% of Fortune 500 Companies have white leadership. This chasm in leadership reinforces the idea that white people are superior as they are visibly in positions of power.
  5. Power plays a huge role in creating racial divides. Because white Americans have always occupied positions of power, society has been structured to serve this group's interests. White Americans control how society is organized and how resources are used, which has created systems that disproportionately benefit members of this group—other white Americans.
  6. Media reinforces racial power dynamics and stereotypes through the kinds of groups represented and how they are portrayed. Roberts and Rizzo use the example of Native Americans, "Roughly 96% of online images of Native Americans depict historical representations (Leavittet al.,2015). Such under-and misrepresentation conveys to viewers that Native Americans are stereotypical and no longer relevant to U.S. society." They note that because Native Americans compose only 1% of the U.S. population, it's unlikely that other racial groups will have opportunities to have these stereotypes challenged in real life. Thus, the media has the power to define and enforce a very narrow perspective of different racial groups.
  7. One of the most critical factors contributing to the perpetual presence of racism in American culture is passivism. Roberts and Rizzo describe this as "an apathy toward systems of racial advantage or denial that those systems exist." Passive racists do not actively reinforce racism, but they passively support it by not actively working against it. Doing nothing about racism, in many ways, is just as damaging as doing something racist. 


"Antiracism" is a term that has gained popularity since the release of author and historian Ibram X. Kendi's book, "How To Be An Antiracist." In many ways, the word is a direct rebuke to the idea that someone can be "not racist." How a person is racist or not comes down to their decisions; they either take direct action against racism or actively or passively support it—there's no in-between. 

There are many ways that you can practice antiracism in your daily life. One is educating yourself on the history and experience of non-white Americans in this country; understanding how groups have historically been marginalized and discriminated against will give you a clear picture of how we got to where we are today. Another is through identifying and challenging your own unconscious biases and beliefs—therapy is an excellent venue for this kind of work. 

There are many different ways that ordinary people, like you and I, can combat the systemic issues and structures of racism. However, we can only establish real change if enough of us consciously commit to dismantling internal beliefs and external systems that perpetuate disproportionate violence and hatred against our fellow humans.

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