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.


  1. Anonymous9:46 AM

    Dear Phillipe

    For the second time, recently, your post has reminded me of a Baha'i quotation that I can no longer find. I think it was bandied about a lot in the late eighties when there seemed a lot of compilations on personal transformation. The meaning, as I remember, was that we must all be constantly vigilant in fighting prejudice in our own hearts as prejudices of many kinds can be forming as we journey through life sometimes even though we were not conscious of them. Maybe I have misremembered this but I feel sure that I read this and it made an impression. It seemed to ring true. I just cannot find the quotation any more.

    I think this is true. It is so easy to unquestioninly generalize about a whole group of people having met a few people from that group, whether it is a certain nationality, followers of a certain religion, a racial group or any other "type".

    Maybe it is something to do with how we learn about the world but I find I have to tell myself that this is not the way to learn about people and sometimes challenge my own thoughts.

    Put very simply. If I encounter a certain sort of plant and it stings me I am probably justified in deciding not to touch that plant or have it in my gardern, ever. If I encounter a group of foreign tourists and they are rude I should not generalize that all of that nationality are rude. If I encounter someone of a different race and they are particularly honest, I cannot be sure that all from that race will share that honesty. People are individual and all make choices. I must overcome my instinct to generalize in this situation.

    Happy New Year


  2. Anonymous10:24 AM

    Happy New Year to you, too, Pauline!

    Phillipe, thank you for getting down to the nitty gritty on this topic!
    "Vogue" is just what it's title suggests-- it promotes and is a reflection of our materialistic American way of thinking.
    Not surprising that it has reduced male/female interracial relations to a cutting edge fashion statement, albeit a little late in the game. Very narcissistic. Both individuals are photographed/portrayed as "into themselves"; where is any connection between them?
    But of course there is sex-- It is much more sophisticated, casual, than the overt King Kong-Faye Raye connection. Still, the women in both photos are definitely objects to be had, boiling down to the message: Black men are physically powerful and animalistic and of course they want white women. I need not add that "King Kongs'" punishment for his fixation on poor helpless Faye Raye--she apparently couldn't help herself for oozing sex, and needed to be rescued -- was death.
    Dare I suggest that, similar to enticing women towards death through cigarettes with the psychological inducements of "Virginia Slims" ads in the '70's: ("You've come a long way, baby!") there is a seduction towards death of the soul in our American approach to the relationships between men and women, especially when they cross racial divides?

    About the strong, underlying racial psychological motivations and assumptions we all have, based on our prior conditioning, I could write a treatise. I think these things need to be pondered, and shared with one another across racial lines, BUT, only in the atmosphere and with the guidelines/boundaries outlined by Shoghi Effendi. And our understanding of "genuine love" needs to be re-defined and founded on the spritual principles outlined in the Writings.--See, for example, 'Abdu'l Baha, on "the four kinds of love", which among other things distinguishes between love and attraction.
    Judith W.

  3. Judith and Pauline! These are the kinds of thoughtful and passionate comments that this blog needs. It makes it all worthwhile. Yes this issue of race, sexuality, materialism etc. is incredibly explosive and yes so often connected to violence or the threat thereof. Apparently LeBron James himself has responded to the contraversy, which is raging in some media, that he was simply having some fun. I wonder what Gisele thinks or the photographer who took the photo for that matter about the implications of the Vogue cover. Of course, ours is the same entertainment/fashion culture where Denzel Washington had to play a corrupt, sociopathic cop and Halley Berry had to have graphic sex on screen to get Oscars. Gracious God, even Forrest Whitaker had to play Idi Amin for the "Academy" to finally recognize his talent. Of course I'm being a bit simplistic here but I think you get my point.

  4. Phillipe thank you for all your observations and the information you provide. I've been a "silent" reader of your blog for a little while and I have a lot to learn...

  5. Thanks Anne for making yourself known, this blog is all about the readers, if noone reads it, then it's basically pointless. It would be like talking to myself which as you know, people get locked up for (smile).

    Keep coming back and share your thoughts with the other people reading this blog.

    For the rest of the silent readers, be silent no more!

  6. sonja3:54 PM

    Thanks for your thoughts + blog.

    Yes the "King Kong comparison" in that image is amazing. Just think of the associations if the body types had been reversed.

    keep going!

    Sonja, The Netherlands.

  7. Much like Pauline, I can't help but think of how essential Shoghi Effendi's standards are for overcoming any and every kind of prejudice. Love transcends all boundaries. Abdu'l-Baha ask us to look upon even our personal enemies as our friends... can't the same types of negative stereotypes we conjure up for people of different gender, race, ethnicity be created to protect our egos from someone we simply don't like?

    Enter the importance of truthfulness, the foundation of all human virtues! As long as we keep lying to ourselves and believing all these false negatives, we will perpetuate injustice, prejudice, and fear.

    "Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred."
    -Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace

    Thanks Phillipe, for always speaking the truth.