Bias should not direct how we talk about others

Since the beginning of time, there have been different races of people. And for just as long, there have been tensions between them. Wars, slavery, genocide and displacement have deepened divisions over time. Many people yearn for equality and peaceful existence amongst us all.

Yet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the wounds of racial prejudice are again evident as some people fear that prejudice accounted for, at least part of, a perceived slow response by the government.

Others believe the media has shown prejudice in its portrayal of black victims. As comedian Kanye West stated during a nationally televised concert for hurricane relief, "I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, they say, 'They're looting.' See a white family, they say, 'They are looking for food.'"

Mr. West's comments conceptualize how social science researchers believe prejudicial attitudes are transmitted within our cultures and also within families. Say, for instance, a family is driving down the street. The mother or father might point to a black man who is homeless and make a comment about blacks being "lazy." As they later pass a black woman in business clothes walking into her place of employment, no comment is made. Simply, children in prejudicial families are taught to look for evidence that supports their racist attitudes and ignore evidence that doesn't support it.

Even worse, intolerance, or acting on prejudiced beliefs in some way, is highly associated with parents endorsing or tolerating these types of attitudes and behaviors. Our culture and media spread these same types of racial biases when they focus on the negative incidents of various racial groups and ignore positive incidents.

Social science research indicates that it isn't solely parents who influence prejudice but also peers, the media and how much contact one has with other racial groups. For example, people are less likely to be prejudiced if they have had noncompetitive contact with people of other ethnicities, if they are on equal status with each other, if they are able to become personally acquainted, and if authority figures in their lives approve of the contact.

Researchers at Princeton University have identified that emotions play a big role in prejudice. People tend to rate different groups along two dimensions: warmth and competence. "Warmth" means that they believe the group is trustworthy and friendly while "competence" means the group is capable and skillful.

These beliefs then become associated with people feeling pride, envy, disgust or pity. For instance, this study showed that most people rate middle-class Caucasian people as both warm and competent, leading them to feel pride. People in this Princeton study rated groups such as homeless people, drug addicts and certain minority groups as low on both warmth and competence, leading them to feel disgust.

And, members of the Princeton test group tended to rate those who are rich, Jewish or Asian low on warmth but high on competence, prompting them to feel envy. People who held extreme prejudicial attitudes tended to want to actively or passively "harm" those toward whom they felt disgust or envy.

Prejudicial attitudes change over time. Younger children tend to be more racist than older children. And during particular developmental phases, children and adults want to belong to a desired "in-group." It is during these times that they are most likely to think and make negative comments about other groups. Researchers hypothesize that voicing negative beliefs about other groups makes them feel more a part of their own.

Researchers have looked at ways of reducing racial biases. In one study, participants were repeatedly shown images of admired people from stigmatized groups, like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Then they were repeatedly shown pictures of disliked Caucasians, like Timothy McVeigh or serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Participants showed substantially less prejudiced attitudes after viewing these images. Studies also indicate that ethnically integrated schools, neighborhoods and churches have moderately reduced racial biases over time.

Hurricane Katrina has offered us an opportunity to re-evaluate how racial biases continue to affect many in our country. The aforementioned research indicates how readily we lump people into groups, rather than seeing individuals for who they are.

Tolerating racism isn't good for any of us. For those of us who want our children to respect people regardless of race, studies show that when children think their parents are unprejudiced, they tend to hold the same values. As adults, it's important for all of us to consciously examine our own biases and to positively change how we talk about others and allow others to talk around us. People are always better off when they are engaged in building people up rather than tearing them down.

n Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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