Mental Health


Mandy Kloppers

The psychology behind racial discrimination

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible” – Maya Angelou


It would be wonderful to believe that humans have evolved and that we understand the value of equality, justice and respect for each other. The reality is sadly far from this ideal. Racism seems to be part of the fabric of life and although many profess to being non-racist, actions speak louder than words.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to feel oppressed and judged before you have even opened your mouth. Being targeted purely because of the colour of your skin speaks volumes. To me it conjures up barbarism, narrow mindedness and a lack of compassion for fellow human beings.

Why does racism still exist?

Evolutionary psychology tries to account for present-day human behaviour in terms of how it would have served our ancestor’s survival strategies. If a trait has survived and become prevalent, then the genes associated with that behaviour must have been “selected” by evolution.

According to this logic, racism is prevalent because it was beneficial for early human beings to deprive other groups of resources. It would have done our ancestors no good to be considerate and allow other groups to share their resources. That would have decreased their own chances of survival. But if they could oppress other groups, this would increase their own access to resources.

Anthropologists throw doubt on the evolutionary perspective. Their research suggested that groups mingled together rather than competitively. Significantly, hunter-gatherer groups don’t tend to be territorial. They don’t have a possessive attitude toward particular pieces of land or food resources.

Why do conflicts tend to occur between different groups?

There has always existed an “us and them” division between groups. In fact, research proved that taking a group of people who were all getting on, splitting them into two groups and giving them opposing goals led to great divisions. If it can happen amongst friends, it’s bound to happen among groups who hold negative beliefs about each other.

The Robbers Cave Park experiment in Oklahoma

According to psychologist Muzafer Sherif, intergroup conflicts tend to arise from competition for resources, stereotypes, and prejudices. In a controversial experiment, the researchers placed 22 boys between the ages of 11 and 12 in two groups at a camp in the Robbers Cave Park in Oklahoma. The boys were separated into two groups and spent the first week of the experiment bonding with their other group members.

It wasn’t until the second phase of the experiment that the children learned that there was another group, at which point the experimenters placed the two groups in direct competition with each other. This led to considerable discord, as the boys clearly favored their own group members while they disparaged the members of the other group. In the final phase, the researchers staged tasks that required the two groups to work together. These shared tasks helped the boys get to know members of the other group and eventually led to a truce between the rivals.

Erroneous beliefs and anxiety

Divisions will always exist in society – rich or poor, attractive or less attractive, in a relationship or single, religious or atheist. What people tend to do is hold a bias for their own particular affiliations and often hold incorrect views or stereotypes about other groups. Often these views don’t get reality tested and the negative beliefs persist. Uncertainty often leads to unfair judgements and skewed opinions.

When we examine our beliefs, and challenge them – find out for ourselves, we are often pleasantly surprised. Rumours and hearsay create division and hatred. Being open-minded and tolerant bring people together.

Don’t buy into stereotypes and be a critical thinker. Form beliefs from your own personal experiences not vicariously through the opinions of others.

Homogenization of individuals belonging to other groups means that people are no longer perceived in terms of their individual personalities but in terms of generalized prejudices and assumptions about the group as a whole. Stereotypes are dangerous and cause many people to be misunderstood.

A Correlation Between Racism and Psychological Ill Health

Racism is a symptom of psychological ill-health. It’s a sign of a lack of psychological integration, a lack of self-esteem and inner security. Psychologically healthy people with a stable sense of self and strong inner security are not racist, because they have no need to strengthen their sense of self through group identity. They have no need to define themselves in comparison to others.

Xenophobia is not the only possible response to insecurity or a sense of lacking, of course; taking drugs, drinking heavily, and becoming obsessively materialistic or ambitious may be other responses. Psychologically healthy people don’t need to resort to racism in the same way that they don’t need to resort to taking drugs.

It is also helpful to remember that there is no biological basis for dividing the human race into distinct “races.” There are just groups of human beings — all of whom came from Africa originally — who developed slightly different physical characteristics over time as they traveled to, and adapted to, different climates and environments. The differences between us are very fuzzy and very superficial. Fundamentally, there are no races — just one human race.

I’m an idealist, and I wish we could all treat each other well on an individual basis. Keeping an open mind, being tolerant and non-judgemental and allowing others to be who they are without unrealistic expectations. That would make a happier, more collaborative and safer world for all of us.

Mandy X

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash