The Innate Human Trait That Can Make Everyone Racist, and How to Fight It.

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Image: Beata Zawrzel — NurPhoto/Getty Images

George Floyd’s death, which sparked many movements to rise against racism across the whole world, was well over 1 month ago. The struggle to remove the existing tyrannical reign of racist thoughts and beliefs, as well as the heritage of the dark past, was still going strong however. It is very clear to us, from the age of slavery, the apartheid governance of South Africa, until the recent death of many innocent minorities in the US and elsewhere in the world that racism held a dark, disturbing power that disrupt the peace of the world and nonetheless, persist until this modern age when modern thoughts, liberalism and pacifism, got its traction.

Understanding Racism

In simple sentence, racism can be defined as any prejudice, discrimination and antagonism towards another people based on their ethnicity, race, or skin color. During the Apartheid era, South Africans of Africans origin were actively discriminated and segregated against their European-descent South African counterparts. Many areas are restricted to one particular race while being restricted to others. This was also evident in the southern part of the US up until the mid 20th century.

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This chart shows the difference of wealth between 25 to 40 y/o white and black families in the United States. Systematic discrimination has prevented blacks from gaining equal financial liberties as their white counterparts. Chart: Andy Kiersz/Business Insider

Not merely harsher examples like the one aforementioned above, softer racism such as biases towards blacks being a threat to the community are often seen in the United States and elsewhere around the world, that persist to this day, of which the assassination of George Floyd, and many others, embodies. But it turns out that there are traits within ourselves that make us prone to racism, and this means that not only the racists, but also those that are actively discriminated against can exhibit racism because of these traits.

Fear of Uncertainty

Humans love certainty. This is why people create agendas, schedules and routines that set the sequence of activities that needs to be done. A research published by Nicholas Carleton describes the fear of uncertainty as an “individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing”. When humans cannot rationalize or predict the impact or the sequence of events that will happen due to something, they tend to exhibit fear and feel threatened. This is why events ranging from economic crisis, up to trivial things such as when someone texts their crush and it goes unanswered, can induce anxiety and fear among people.

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Human prefer a “well-established” and certain way of life, compared to the one full of doubts and uncertainties. Image: Andy Puddicombe/Headspace

The fear of uncertainty is not only exclusive to events or an object, but also to fellow human beings. In the middle ages, people show their hands to others to show that they are unarmed and therefore, eliminate themselves as a threat. This activity evolved into handshakes that are common nowadays. The uncertainty associated with someone one doesn’t know yet may create a feeling of threat and fear of what the person might bring, and this causes distress and activates the “fight or flee” mentality within oneself until it can finally be ascertained that the person is safe and friendly. This is why sometimes, meeting superior people, such as meeting a person with higher stratification than oneself is, or someone who is physically superior, can induce fear and the feel of being threatened.

This uniquely does not only happen on an individual scale. As time goes, individuals may go along with more individuals as they adapt and get to know each other, and this forms groups of people. These groups of people unite because they have recognized one another as friendly and share similar backgrounds or possess similar traits and activities that unite them together. Different groups may be created based on the common characteristics of its members, and because human beings may vary based on their origin, several different groups with different member characteristics arise. When this group collides with one another, especially those that are highly different from one another, the fear of uncertainty mechanism activates, and the group may feel threatened and turn hostile to each other.

The uncertainty mechanism defines the extent of fear and tense feeling the group faced. Similarities such as skin color, language, or behavior may buffer the negative feeling associated with uncertainty because it gives a sense of predictability and therefore, less threat. However, when the two groups are so contrasted between each other, the sense of threat may be stronger, and this activates the “fight or flee” mechanism that is embedded within human beings. A group may flee if it is threatened by a larger force of out-groups, or the other group one is not associated with. Switch around, and the larger in-group, or the group one associates themselves with, will threaten the smaller out-group because of their perceived strength associated with higher quantity. This is why usually the one being discriminated against are the minorities, because they represent a weaker group to which it is vulnerable to the reigning, stronger majority.

Social Cognition

The level of hostility between these two groups may vary based on the social cognition of the group. Social cognition is defined as the mental representation of out-groups stored in the human mind. This social cognition consists of cultural schemas. Cultural schema is the classification of other human beings based on the knowledge associated with one’s experience in engaging the out-group. This schema can classify a person based on their profession, status, or even wealth, but usually humans use schema to depict and categorize people from other communities. For example, Germans are seen as “serious, hard worker, and punctual”, the Chinese are “diligent, precise, and have high business acumen”. Schema help humans cope with uncertainty because it gives a label to the out-group from which one can understand and create a “prediction” of other groups’ behavior.

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Social cognition helps overcoming uncertainty when meeting people from different group. Image: Nikkei Asian Review

Negative schema reinforces racism

This schema can be acquired because of interaction, but most of the time, as people tend to flock with their own groups, they tend to acquire the out-groups’ schema through information from those inside their own group. Information spread by an in-group member may be factual. However, often self-prejudice, bad experiences with one member of the out-groups which may not actually represent the actual out-group, or one’s own negative intent towards the out-group may cause the wrong schema to be spread into the in-group, and this results in the negative view the in-group has towards the out-group. One very relevant example is the description of Africans as being “less-intelligent” and “barbarous”, which was used as pretext by European colonists to invade and plunder the wealth of many African nations in the colonization era, and unfortunately, this negative schema persists until the 21st century, causing discrimination that ultimately culminates to the disparity of the quality-of-life of the Europeans and the Africans.

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Negative perception towards another group due to the use of wrong schema will lead to racism and violence. Image: Sky Sports.

The one ultimate culprit to racism and how to fight it

Fear of uncertainty, and the use of schema, are unfortunately an inherent mechanism of human being in socialization, and this does not only specify a certain societal group, but the entirety of it. Hence, all human beings are prone to racism due to the factors as aforementioned. However, looking at the details of the way racism is formed inherently within human beings, we can pinpoint one factor that greatly contributes to racism: misinformation.

“The one factor that greatly contributes to racism: misinformation

Once the culprit has been found, it is significantly easier to formulate a solution that is hopefully, practical for ordinary individuals to practice in order to combat racism for good:

  1. Learn, learn, and learn, and EVERYONE has to do it. Learning is the best way to combat misinformation, and that everyone should be learning, even the one who are associated as victims of racism, because the innate factors that contribute to racism are present in every human being. The learning process should be done in an environment that is less biased, and from sources that are biased so as to avoid the negative schema that may in turn reinforce the racist feeling within oneself. It is better to learn from a good, actual member of the out-group to get to know them better and actually form a pure schema that reflects the actual quality of the out-group.
  2. Get to know more people. You may encounter a bad member of the out-group that may ignite a negative schema of them, but you have to realize that there will always be a good person in that group. Similarly, not everyone from your in-groups are good. Some are bad and some can even be worse by several magnitudes to the out-group. Get to know more people, especially the out-groups, will give you knowledge that there are good people in those out-groups too that may contribute positively to your own life, even your in-groups life as a whole.
  3. Stop associating one’s bad behavior with their community. There are Thugs, just like there are Mafias, Triads, Yakuza, Assassins, and many others. There are bad people from all over the world and from all the different communities that exist on this planet earth, but there are fortunately more good people from all the communities that exist on the planet. There are Albert Einstein, Percy Julian, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jack Ma, and many other people from all over the world that make the world a better place.
  4. Embrace the diversity. People need to understand that there are other people who live life in a different way than themselves. Often those different ways of life result in amazing wonders and cultural experiences that one can enjoy and be fond of, and this just adds to the wonder the world has. Understanding those differences and appreciating them are just examples of how you can combat racism and stop the growth of uncertainty as well as the building of negative schema within you and also your friends and your in-groups.
  5. Teach your kids not to be racist. Often, negative schema and prejudices are learned from the behavior of the adult a kid belongs to. Kids are very prone to replicate what their parents do and this means that a person who is racist will most likely breed another racist. By nurturing our kids to see people objectively and teaching them to learn and embrace differences, we can help stop racism from growing.

At the end of the day, the writer wants to ask all of the readers to practice these five steps, and hopefully, to be able to add upon all these steps with other steps that help combat racism and end its dominance on planet earth. The writer also acknowledges that he is prone to racism, and therefore, please forgive and correct any of the content that may provoke racism. Let’s together turn the world into a better place.

My goal is to inform and inspire through my stories and help people live their life to the fullest.

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