Why are people racist?

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

In recent years, people have begun to concern themselves more with racism. The increasing number of famous minority ethnic singers, artists, athletes speaking out have raised more awareness on the subject, including how racism can affect a person’s mental health. So what exactly is racism? How do we become racist? And what can we do to remove those biases from our lives?

As most of us know, racism is defined as a prejudice towards a person or group of people because of their racial backgrounds. One of the ways these prejudices can form is through racist comments from our own families. In my case, my relatives would often compare a person's attributes to their race. For example, they say that Bataknese races are always impolite in conversations and Chinese-Indonesians are mostly devious. I was influenced by their remarks, and I began to believe that my family accurately represented those races and those people.

The second reason why people become attached to their racist thoughts is because of tribalism. “An us-them mentality is, unfortunately, a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called 'in-group.'” For example, when talking to a person with a Bataknese background, I feel they use more slang words and have an aggressive tone. However, when talking to someone else who speaks like that, from my own race, I don’t put those traits with their race. Humans tend to put people in groups and give those groups dehumanizing traits that anyone could have.

Some of us may claim that we are not racist. However, our behavior (consciously or subconsciously) doesn’t seem to coincide with what we claim, for example, we might clutch our belongings tighter when around a person of a certain race, or we might invite people of a certain race into our friend group while subconsciously shunning out others. These biases can’t be eliminated just by “claiming” that you are not racist. So how can we work towards eradicating those biases?

Although it's unlikely that the majority of people can eliminate their biases, we must know at least how to reduce them. According to Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University, we need to first acknowledge our biases to overcome them. We can take some sort of test to find out our implicit biases. Then, we need to consciously think about our behavior when we are close with the group of people we have a bias towards, constantly reflecting if we are being subtly racist if we would act this way with anybody of a different race until it becomes habitual.

Another way we can eliminate our biases is by surrounding ourselves with people who we have biases against . By meeting different people and just talking to them, we can see that they are more similar to us than we may have expected. This worked for me because as I surround myself with more people of different races whether they are Bataknese, Chinese-Indonesian, or any other race, I realize that people in each ethnic group all have different personalities and I cannot judge a whole group of people based on one person.


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