I’m Doctor Mike. Welcome to the Science of Racism and Privilege podcast.
Racism is not a person or a thing, and it is not binary. Racism is simply the extent to which we intentionally, and unintentionally, act unjustly toward people who are not like ourselves. No one is immune to unjust behavior because those behaviors are rooted in human nature.
This podcast series is a safe place to explore the science behind that behavior, to celebrate our just internal narratives, and to challenge those internal narratives that negatively impact others.
This first episode is all about the science. So let’s get started…
These talks are all about human nature and how natural inclinations at times creates injustices against Black and Brown people in America. Attempting to change policy without first changing people’s mindsets often ends in failure. We have seen some of the futility of that approach over the last 60 years of civil rights struggle. And those failures have brought us to this current boiling point of racial unrest.
The key to beginning to address racial inequality starts with understanding the science of how humans naturally create this US versus THEM world, how those perceptions translate into behavior, and how those behaviors affect Black and Brown people through personal interactions as well as the policies in our institutions.
The first step on our personal journey is admitting that Black and Brown people… and White people… live together in America, but in two different worlds. But you already know that deep down. And you already know which world is better. How do I know that?
Jane Elliott, who has been an anti-racism activist since the 60s, has often asked a question that I will pose here…How many of you in the audience with White skin would like to live and be treated as a Black or Brown person in America? The answer to that question shows that you all already know in your hearts that Black and Brown people are treated worse and have fewer opportunities than White people in America.
If you are interested in making a difference, and if you are self-aware and accept that being White has its privileges and being Black or Brown has its disadvantages, then this talk is for you.
If you put 100 people in a room, something amazing is guaranteed to happen. The group of 100 will segment into subgroups. This tendency for human beings to form subgroups and create an US versus THEM environment is completely natural. Racism is just a more extreme state of this natural phenomenon. But just because it is human nature does not mean it is right or best for you or for humanity.
Labeling and categorizing things and assigning characteristics to those things is part of maturing as a human being. From the time you are a small child you learn that the stove is hot and the electrical socket is bad. Now we know that all stoves are not hot and if the power is turned off the electrical socket is safe.
But, we are more efficient in our actions and more effective at self-preservation when we categorize things and create an internal narrative based on that characterization. It is what we do as humans to survive.
Social Identity Theory is the tendency for individuals to identify themselves based on self-constructed social categories. I’m Black, I’m White, I’m short, I’m educated, I’m a woman, I’m gay, I’m an Eagles fan, I’m a republican, I’m a veteran. All of these are examples of the types of categories that together form our social identity.
Here is the important part…. while these categories may exist in reality, what you tell yourself the category means is all in your mind. The same goes for the categorization of other people. You alone decide what the categories that make up another person’s social identity mean to you. And you alone decide the comparative difference between you and them.
Let me be clear… if you have vision, it is against human nature for you not to perceive another person’s ethnicity and gender. And it is human nature for you to create an internal narrative about what that ethnicity and gender means to you.
When discussing Social Identity Theory, here is where racism rears its ugly head. To protect our self-esteem, humans generally develop an equal or better narrative for their own categories when compared to the categories that do not apply to them. That biased self-constructed belief about your own social identity and about other’s social identities creates your internal narrative, and that biased internal narrative then affects your behavior. Therefore, your behavior reveals your internal narrative.
Nonchalantly kneeling on a Black man’s neck until he dies tells the world what your internal narrative is about being White in comparison to being Black. In a similar way, telling a Black person that you don’t see them as being Black often reveals your biased internal narrative about the negative feelings you have about Black people as a whole, and potentially how superior you feel your ethnicity is in comparison to Blacks.
So what does social identity theory teach us? It tells us that our self-created internal narrative is that those who share our social categories are as good as or better than everyone else. That this narrative is completely fabricated in our minds, and that we have agency within ourselves to be able to change that internal narrative.
What can you do about this? First you have to admit that you may be perpetuating injustices on others because of a biased internal narrative about your social identity and the social identity of others. Take some time to really think about this. What are the categories that you identify with? And what exactly does it mean to you to be a member of that category? What are your self-constructed internal narratives about others? And most importantly, how does your narrative translate into the way you treat others?
The similarity-attraction paradigm shows that we are attracted to and naturally congregate with those whom we perceive as similar to ourselves. The age-old saying “Birds of a feather flock together” speaks to our nature to seek out and more easily bond with those who are most like ourselves.
In the digital age, social media amplifies this tendency. If your connection on social media strays too far from your beliefs and perceptions of the world, then you “unfriend” them and eliminate them from you network. The problem is that this leaves behind only those people who agree with your perspective on every issue that is of value to you.
These social media platforms then tailor the news and posts in your feed to conform with and reinforce your social narrative. If anything does not fit that narrative, we now declare it as fake news or a hoax in order to discount its authenticity and value.
The result is that our self-created digital world is becoming more homogenous and our internal narratives get nurtured only with self-aggrandizing reinforcement, adding to the self-imposed illusion that everything we think is right and everything they think is wrong.
The difficulty is that it is hard to clearly evaluate the shared narratives of any group when you are so invested in its formation. This is especially true when that group consists of family, co-workers, and long-term friends. However, that group narrative then affects your behavior and how you interact with the rest of the world.
Which birds are you flocking with? Evaluate the narratives of your group and then look inward. Are they truly your beliefs? If not, do you feel psychologically safe to share your thoughts? Most importantly, are those narratives translating into unjust behavior toward others or overlooking unjust behavior perpetrated by others?
The last concept is optimal distinctiveness theory which tells us that we have an innate desire to be both unique from others and similar to others. We optimally achieve this balance by seeking to be more the same with our own group and more different from other groups.
When it comes to optimal distinctiveness, there is a wide range of possibilities. On the one end of the spectrum, you can view sameness as a sharing of culture and traditions with your group, and distinctiveness as a difference in those traditions from other groups where you place no relative value on one tradition and culture over the other.
At the other end of the spectrum are groups like the White Separatist / White Supremacist movement where maximum sameness comes from racial purity and maximum distinctiveness comes from denigrating and devaluing the lives of Black and Brown people.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you control your own internal narrative and that narrative is reflected in your behavior and interactions with others who do not share your social identity. Which end of the optimal distinctiveness spectrum are you on, and how does that stance translate into unjust behavior against those not in your group?
Racist tendencies are rooted in human nature. But as I said at the beginning, this does not mean that it is right or best for you or humanity. There are many other instances where we have to fight against human nature to achieve a better outcome.
In quality and process improvement initiatives, we fight against the tendency for humans to become less attentive and create mistakes when tasks are routine. This natural tendency is why you often can’t recall details of the ride into work or remember if you locked your door when you left.
We try to fight against our gluttonous and sedentary human nature when we diet and exercise to live a longer, more healthful life. And we fight against natural inclinations to freely copulate with others to preserve lasting relationships and build strong families.
The key word here is “fight”. Now that you understand some of the science of racism, are you willing to fight against those inclinations, moderate your internal narratives, and protect your beliefs from group thought that animates unjust behavior toward others? You can preserve love for yourself and people like you without the need to increase your status through the subversion and oppression of those who are not like you.
That’s the end of episode 1. Thanks for listening. I hope this podcast gets you thinking. Be sure to visit DrMikeHorton.com for more information and to subscribe to future Science of Racism and Privilege episodes.