Sunday, March 23, 2008

Psychology of Race


Finally someone gets a little bit closer to saying what needs to be said, and I'm not talking about Senator Obama's speech, though this editorial does mention it:

"First, pretending race doesn't matter doesn't fool anyone. Instead, experimental psychologists say, it pushes our responses down into our unconscious, where ideas we would actively reject reside. Consider, for instance, the implicit association tests developed to study the effects of social stereotypes on our spontaneous reactions. When researchers asked study participants to pair terms with faces, white people found it easier to link black faces with guns than with tools. Perhaps more relevant to the campaign, white participants also found it harder to see black people as equally "American" with whites or Asian-Americans." Read the whole editorial here.

Given what I do for a living it's nice to see someone in the mainstream media address the psychological dimensions of race/racism. So often racism is discussed purely as character flaw (You're a racist!) or an issue of structural inequality (It's the System, man!) but not as reflective of often unconscious mechanisms. I believe that today, much of the damage that is done regarding race including the perpetuation of structural inequalities is due to the combination of the unconscious and the unequal distribution of power and privilege in our society. Interesting enough, the latest post on Blackademics offers an excellent example of what happens when people with power make decisions without thinking about the implications:

"The popular fashion magazine Vogue made history this month, placing an African American male on its cover for the first time of its illustrious 116 years of publication. The cover of Vogue’s annual “Shape” issue features basketball all-star, Lebron James alongside the beautiful Gisele Bündchen. At first glance I was comfortable with this photo, probably because I am used to seeing images of black males portrayed in this manner. Pick up any Basketball or Hip-Hop magazine, SLAM, XXL, Scratch - they often display images of Black males that exude energy, swagger, anger, even violence, as this photo does. However, this does not seem to be the standard with Vogue. Particularly unnerving in this photo is the drastic stereotypical contrast between the physically dominating, roaring James and the delicate, quaint Gisele - enter the King Kong comparison. This photo resurrects the centuries-old “Birth of a Nation” stereotype of an animalistic dark male and his lilly white female interest." Definitely worth reading.

Racism is more than skin deep, it is very much a product of the mind and shaped by character and social structures as well. It is not easy to address or to change. Shoghi Effendi offered insight into at least part of what is required in the long term:

"Let neither [in this case whites and blacks]think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country."
(Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 40)

We've got a lot of work to do.