Psychology of Racism and What YOU Can Do to Help

This post is a bit different from my previous posts. But here it is…

I decided to write a post in light of everything that is happening in the world right now. I am not American, but I stand with all my Black friends and others that have been hurt by the recent events.

In this post, I will first outline the psychological implications of racism and then give some insight into what YOU can do and how YOU can help.

This is an issue that concerns the whole world, not just the Black community or Americans. This is a humanitarian issue, on which we should take a clear stand, speak up, and act out on it.

I am not Black, neither am I an expert on racism but I feel that if I say nothing, my silence makes me complicit.

What happened?

No doubt, you have heard about what happened to George Floyd in Minnesota. Police officer Chauvin kept his knee in the area between Floyd’s neck and shoulder for nearly three minutes after another officer checked his pulse and found he had none. Floyd’s final words have been, “I can’t breathe.”

There is a well-documented history of police violence against people of color and in particular Black men. Black men are significantly more likely to die at the hands of police than white men are. This is not an opinion, but a FACT.

The case of George Floyd is not an isolated case. Systemic racism is like that of an illness that has spread to every aspect of our society today. This is what we mean when we say that the system is broken.

Racism is not getting worse. It’s getting filmed. –Will Smith

There is no doubt that racism is present in not only police officers, but also in healthcare workers, clergymen, teachers, and every other occupation. However, only the police literally have the power of life and death over citizens.

Even when the consequences are not lethal like they were in the case of George Floyd, people of color are subjected to unequal application of law, as well as violence and humiliation.

Riots happen when a lifetime of fear, hopelessness, injustice, and rage reaches a tipping point.

Psychological explanations of racism

Racism is a systematic feature of the world’s social architecture and can be observed in traditions, laws, myths, legacies, institutions, and habits.

There are different explanations of psychological processes that lie behind racism. Today, I will focus on two prominent explanations of racism: racism as an oppressive ideology and racism as a psychological defense mechanism.

Racism can be seen as an oppressive ideology that involves four psychological processes: habituation, internalization, learned helplessness, and confirmation bias.

Habituation occurs when we no longer register the stimulus after a prolonged exposure: Black people get used to racist remarks from the world and they don’t pay attention to them anymore.

The second process is internalization, which is defined as the integration of others’ values, attitudes, standards, and opinions into one’s own sense of self. Therefore, the powerless will often internalize how the powerful view them as their own self-view. If the privileged Whites repeatedly label the Black community as dangerous or violent, they will begin to behave violently, so as not to violate the powerful majority expectations.

Thirdly, learned helplessness is the sense of powerlessness arising from persistent failure or trauma. If the Black community perceives that change is impossible they will give in to the unjust system.

The fourth process is confirmation bias along with belief perseverance bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, and belief perseverance bias is the tendency to cling to our existing beliefs in the face of disconfirming information. Once we have internalized a worldview, for example, the Blacks are violent, we tend to only notice and embrace evidence that supports our view and ignore data that appear to contradict it.

Racism can also be explained as a psychological defense mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety. There are five different aspects of racism as a defense mechanism.

Firstly, if a person feels insecure or lacking in identity, they might desire to affiliate themselves with a group to strengthen their sense of identity and find a sense of belonging. The need for belonging is also one of the basic human needs and it is in our nature that we want to affiliate and connect with others. This makes us feel more complete and significant and there is nothing wrong with the need in itself. However, this basic human need may lead onto the next stage.

Secondly, the categorization into groups can be a basis for enmity towards other groups to make our own group seem supreme and more cohesive. Our own group tends to become stronger as it defines in its conflict with other groups.

Thirdly, members of a group may withdraw empathy from members of other groups and therefore, limit their compassion and concern for them. This can encourage cruel and heartless acts towards everybody outside their group, as they remain benevolent toward members of their own group. Chauvin strangled Floyd because he was Black and this doesn’t mean Chauvin would do the same to a man of his own race. In fact, it appears that police officers are far more likely to discriminate, humiliate, or even murder people of color.

Fourthly, the homogenization of individuals belonging to other groups occurs. This means that people are no longer perceived in terms of their individual personalities or behavior but in terms of generalized prejudices and assumptions about the group as a whole. An example of the fourth stage is thinking that all Blacks are aggressive and denying that every Black person has its own personality traits and virtues.

Finally, on the last stage, people may project their own psychological flaws and personal failings onto another group, as a strategy of avoiding blame. This is the most dangerous and destructive extreme of racism. Other groups become scapegoats, and consequently are liable to be punished, attacked or even murdered. Those who are unable to admit to any personal faults are especially prone to this strategy and are very likely to demonize others.

Throughout these five stages, the process of social categorization and social identity is explained, too. Racism is based on belonging to certain groups (social identity) and on differentiating between your own group and other groups (social categorization).

Nevertheless, this theory implies that racism is a symptom of low self-esteem and a lack of inner security. Mentally healthy people with a stable sense of self are hence not racist and they show no need to define themselves in conflict with others.

Some studies have demonstrated that we show more empathy toward people of our own race compared to others belonging to a different race. One study included white and Chinese participants that were exposed to photos of others in pain. Concurrently, their brain activity was recorded.

Results have shown that both ethnicity groups had more activation in the empathy area of the brain when looking at photos of people their own race suffering. The empathic brain response was significantly decreased when the participants viewed the faces of individuals from other ethnic groups experiencing pain.

Psychological consequences of racism

Numerous studies have shown the negative psychological effects of racism. The experience of racism has been found to be uniquely predictive of post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, learned helplessness, fear, recurrent and involuntary distressing memories, dream, flashbacks of the traumatic event. These symptoms can all be observed in a great book about a girl who saw her friend get killed by the police called The Hate U Give.

When you witness the kind of grotesque violence against a man like George Floyd, knowing this could happen to you or someone close to you, how can you not feel afraid, anxious, threatened, depressed and helpless?

Researchers found that social, emotional, and mental health outcomes were commonly associated with vicarious racism.

Black women are more likely to report conventional and expanded adverse childhood experiences that include experiencing racism and witnessing violence. Early trauma, especially unresolved trauma can impact the development of emotional regulation skills and lead to social, emotional, or cognitive impairment.

Adverse childhood experiences are further linked with heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and many mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

As psychologists, it is our duty to address the mental health needs of this community. Some findings suggest that more than 50-75% of trauma has not been treated.

For those impacted by the trauma of racism, healing can come from counseling, seeking justice, and social support.

Furthermore, racial discrimination can trigger a stress response that results in insomnia, anxiety, depression, skin rashes, heart disease, or gastrointestinal problems.

Numerous studies have found that Black adults who perceived they were subjected to racism were more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to report a low quality of life. Experiencing discrimination regularly can affect health through diminishing a person’s self-worth and by foreclosing opportunities for purposeful living.

How to be anti-racist

It is not enough to be non-racist. You must be unapologetically anti-racist. – Angela Davis

First, understand that this is a humanitarian issue, not a political one. Black people are being murdered for the color of their skin. We’re not talking about polls or voting, we are talking about saving human lives.

Understand how systemic racism works. The system defines success as advancing yourself along certain paths but prevents a segment of the population from getting equal access to these paths of advancement. When those people who were not given adequate access to the accepted paths fail to advance, we blame them. When they end up taking other paths, we accuse them of breaking the law rather than accusing the law of having broken them.

Systemic change is necessary and it does not involve making the powerful treat the powerless better. It involves giving power to the powerless. Such systemic change cannot succeed until we resolve to go beyond the apparent and obvious, to make the unconscious conscious, and to see the invisible.

Teach yourself to erase the racism that is built deep inside of you, inside of everyone. Do not be ashamed. Black people are dying. And their lives matter.

Understand white privilege. I have never feared that I would die as a result of interacting with police, nor have I worried that I would not get a job because of my skin color. I have never felt discriminated against in healthcare or in school because of my skin color.

However, I have encountered discrimination and unequal treatment, personally, just not because of my skin color. We need to move past our defensiveness and realize that we need to speak up and help because this is our battle, too.

Silence is not an option. Racism and violence won’t change until we do.

A list of last words:

Why did you shoot me? –Kendrec McDade, 19
What are you following me for? –Trayvon Martin, 17
Please don’t let me die. –Kimani Gray, 16
I didn’t even do nothing. –Sam DuBose, 43
I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting. –Michael Brown, 18
I can’t breathe. –Eric Garner, 43

How can I help?

Post on social networks: spread awareness and change beliefs. The least you can do is repost the millions of Instagram posts to help spread the message on how to help, donate, converse, and protest. Publicity is so important when trying to educate others.

If you’re anxious about what your peers will think, take a look at the people you surround yourself with. If they would fight or make fun of you, they are the problem. They are the oppressor we are trying to educate and get rid of. The refusal to post is a refusal to give up your comfort and your power as a privileged individual.

Black people are being killed. The least you could do is say their names out loud. To sit in silence is to let people die.

Now more than ever, if you are in a place of privilege, please reconsider using your voice and platform, however small it might be, to help. Spread petition links and donations. Educate.

Talk about racism; call out your family members and friends. You must educate yourself (and by reading this post you’re off to a good start) and have these uncomfortable conversations in order to erase the racism that has been built and sown into you from many generations before us. You are uncomfortable because you have been taught to be uncomfortable. Your nature is to avoid these conversations because the oppressor has taught us to run away from them, so they can keep their power over you.

Here is a template of responses to racist comments:

Could you clarify what you mean by that?

That does not sound funny to me. It sounds racist.

As your friend, I feel obligated to let you know that that remark was racist.

Is the person’s race relevant to this story?

That joke does not belong in 2020 …

I know you were trying to make a joke but here is why it was offensive …

I really don’t feel comfortable when you make comments like that.

I disagree. You’re stereotyping.

Hmm…do you have evidence to support that belief?

Know that calling people out is never easy or comfortable, but it’s the right thing to do.

Moreover, family members or close friends might not use social media and they won’t be as aware of these cases as they could be. It’s important to bring them into conversation. They may also be misinformed. Including them in these discussions opens up to combatting racism in their own lives and will hopefully help them be more critical of the content they consume.

These conversations are also important because your work starts at home. You don’t need a platform of hundreds or thousands of people to push back against racism, it can start with the people in your family or your close friends.

At the same time, realize that you don’t need to be perfect or know everything to start speaking out about racism. Don’t be afraid to be wrong because you will be. When someone points out you’re wrong, it’s an opportunity for you to grow instead of remaining silent in your ignorance.

We must look into ourselves and challenge ourselves to do better. This includes understanding that white privilege is real, that racism is present and prevalent and that police brutality against people of color continues.

Let’s try to understand the very legitimate survival fear and unequal treatment that comes with having brown skin. Those who commit acts of violence must be held accountable.


Books to read: The Hate U Give, Why I Am Not Talking to White People About Race, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor, So You Want to Talk About Race.

Watch: 13th, American Son, When They See Us (all available on Netflix).

Podcasts to listen to: The Black Princess Diaries, Pod For The Cause, The United States of Anxiety, Pod Save The People, About Race Podcast

Find more resources here.

I hope I not only educated but also inspired you to take action in your local community and reach as many people as you can. We can only help if we stand bold together. It’s time for a change. We have to refuse to allow this subject to fall back in the shadows.

We must speak up, demand reform, and vote like our lives depend on it.

Last but not least, change starts within us. I realize that no matter how open-minded, socially conscious, anti-racist I think I am, I still have old, learned hidden biases that I need to examine. It is my responsibility to check myself for my stereotypes prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination. I will keep on listening and keep on learning.

XX, Ajda