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How individuals learn racial biases at the microlevel

Alan Flurry

While many White American residents believe that disregarding race would help minimize racism, or fear that acknowledging race could lead to the development of racial biases in children, multiple research studies suggest that racial socialization in White American families can reduce racial biases among children and provide a counter narrative to the systemic factors that reinforce racial biases.

Individual-level racial biases operate across broad systems in American society – from interpersonal relationships to cultural narratives and values – to produce and reinforce racial biases in children and adults. The effects flow in both directions to create a feedback loop where systemic factors shape individual-level biases, which also guide systems and institutions to reproduce racial biases and inequalities.

In a new article published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology, psychologists present a new focus on the systemic nature of racial biases. The researchers consider the effects of five systemic factors on racial biases in the USA: power and privilege disparities, cultural narratives and values, segregated communities, shared stereotypes and nonverbal messages.

Though personally held racial prejudices and discrimination have been the primary focus of psychology research until recently, the approach has largely ignored the systemic nature of racial biases and the ways they are shaped by the broader culture in which people live. This focus on individual-level biases does not address the underlying causes of bias and the structures and system that reinforce racial inequality.

"People tend to think that kids likely learn biases from their parents and teachers, and certainly that plays a role and is part of the framework," said Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo, assistant professor in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology and lead author on the review article. "But we also must consider biases at multiple levels, not just the interpersonal, but what are the attitudes and messages about race communicated within a community, and within a state, and within the broader cultural context and even over time, and what those influences have been over generations."

Skinner-Dorkenoo notes that from a psychological perspective, thinking about biases in the context of how systems influence individuals represents a new approach.

In a bi-directional manner, systems influence individuals and individuals guide systems. The review describes how the emphasis on individual-level racial biases has contributed to the growing industry of diversity and implicit bias training, which may temporarily change individual attitudes but is unlikely to be sufficient to address underlying, systematic causes of bias that create and reinforce racial inequality.

"The interventions are not equipped to deal with cultural influences, so when trainees return to the system with the same inputs and influences that originally produced their attitudes prior to the intervention, biased attitudes return," Skinner-Dorkenoo said.

Racial disparities in power and privilege built into American society result in wide-ranging effects on the life outcomes of residents. This societal system affects people's attitudes, leading to expectations of inequality and beliefs that inequality is justified. Those beliefs then motivate individuals that make up the system to behave in ways that maintain the system of inequality, such that individuals’ attitudes reinforce the system of inequality that produced them.

The review cites the example of voting behavior to illustrate how the appearance of racial progress intensifies racial biases. Greater individual-level anti-Black bias was associated with a lower likelihood of voting for Barack Obama in the 2008 American presidential election and reduced support for his healthcare reform proposal.

"It's a bit of a symptom of the problem – issues are used to get support for various political platforms, candidates can tap into the attitudes and biases of the American public in order to get political support for various policies, like efforts to cut social welfare spending," Skinner-Dorkenoo said. "In order to gain support for lots of issues, we tap into biases and then they get reinforced. Even celebrating big milestones like breaking a racial barrier by electing the first Black president, when framed that way it can be threatening to those who have come to expect White people to hold the power. In this way, even if it was meant to be celebratory, because of the way that we have continued to stoke these biases within society racial advancements can heighten biases." 

The review focuses on several interventions that have the potential to challenge racially biased attitudes as society continues to grapple with changing the systemic factors behind racist attitudes and beliefs. The researchers posit that teaching children about race and racism, raising awareness of racial biases, and education about the history of racial injustices has the potential to provide children with a new lens through which they can interpret the societal system in which they are immersed and help them to recognize systemic racism. 

"The fundamental change of a majority of people seeing the current system as unjust, could lead to major changes in the way things have operated for hundreds of years," she said, which over the longer term would begin to affect health disparities, wealth, education and income inequality.

The Nature review article, "A systemic approach to the psychology of racial bias within individuals and society," is the cover article of the July issue, with an accompanying editorial.

Image: Photo of children learning courtesy of the Bakken Museum, via Creative Commons 



Writer: Alan Flurry


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