In numerous recent violent attacks, racist aggressors have explained their actions as anchored in the belief that members of another group are somehow less than human, and therefore “other,” and somehow a threat to the aggressors’ very existence.
While many social theorists have recently helped to popularize awareness of broad systems of oppression, there is still too little understanding of why racism is so widespread and enduring. Central to this recognition is an awareness of how the mental device of “othering” allows individuals to avoid some of the most difficult feelings known to humankind: fear and insecurity.
Framing other people as inferior begins, innocently enough, with the essential mental process of trying to figure out one’s own identity. Beginning as infants, we encounter vast quantities of information and, to better make sense of it, start unconsciously sorting it into various categories.
One of the first things babies learn, through a variety of senses, is how to identify someone as a parent or close family member. Upon meeting someone outside the family, the infant’s mind unconsciously begins to differentiate them as something separate, an “other.” The group to which the family belongs becomes the category in which the self exists (let’s call it “us”), and the group with people who are not in our family is classified as “not us,” a category our nonverbal self understands as “them.”
Before turning 10, we’ve received countless messages about which categories we belong to — or don’t — with our schemas akin to lenses through which we tend to view the entire social world and our place in it.
This mental process of naming and sorting continues through the rest of our lives, creating what cognitive scientists call knowledge schemas. They function like narrative maps, subconsciously telling us which information to pay attention to and what can be ignored, and whether outside things are similar or different. Like a computer operating system, a schema is a cognitive framework that guides the hardware of our brains through the essential task of figuring out who we are.
The nature of the sorting and the specific categories we establish are a byproduct of language and cultural norms. Beginning at birth, adults in many cultures tend to separate infants into groups, typically “boys” and “girls.” Growing up, we learn to label people that way, as well as as by “race,” nationality, religion, height, and myriad other categories. Before turning 10, we’ve received countless messages about which categories we belong to — or don’t — with our schemas akin to lenses through which we tend to view the entire social world and our place in it.
Sorting information isn’t inherently problematic. Difference is part of the human experience, and it’s only natural for us to notice and acknowledge how we exist in different ways physically and socially.
The trouble begins when we, or the people who influence us, attach judgments to other groups, categorizing members of those groups as somehow inferior. Those negative judgments cause us to believe people we’ve classified as unlike ourselves are not only “different” but also, dangerously, something less than.
For this reason, schemas can become conduits to prejudice. Our minds often determine in advance whether something belongs in one grouping or another, even before collecting all of the necessary information. If we are comfortable with ambiguity and our generalizations can be altered with new information, schemas provide loose outlines of how individuals may fit in various categories.
But what happens if prejudgments aren’t allowed to shift along with new information? They harden into rigid scripts that become deeply implanted narratives that, despite being flawed, continue to guide our beliefs and behaviors.
Racism is an example of a flawed script because it positions some people as inferior not because of reality but because of assumptions based on a made-up label that has no scientific basis. Habitually connecting surface traits of race to a person’s worth and judging those of a different race as inferior — and one’s own group as somehow better — is an easy way to build one’s own identity in the absence of deeper considerations about one’s own value.
Anyone taught at an early age to value herself because of her relative superiority, as opposed to her own unique traits, character, and accomplishments, is likely to continue to judge all new information in that way, a self-reinforcing process that undercuts a fully realized identity.
Gordon Allport, a psychologist known for significant contributions to the field of personality psychology, spent decades studying prejudice and found that prejudiced thoughts, like the creation of mental maps, serve an important cognitive function: the avoidance of facing difficult feelings about the self, such as fear and low self-esteem.
“It is easier and safer for a person in inner conflict to avoid self reference,” Allport wrote in his landmark 1954 book, “The Nature of Prejudice.” “It is better to think of things happening to him rather than as caused by him.”
In other words, a prejudiced person tends to externalize events as happening “out there” beyond the individual’s control because it’s easier than confronting the huge, scary feelings that can come with confronting one’s own fears about oneself.
The issue of managing inner conflict identified by Allport is no different than what people wanting to end racism ought to wrestle with now. It is a dilemma psychologists view as a matter of agency and self-efficacy: whether an individual is sufficiently able to make independent decisions that control their motivation, behavior, and social environment, or passively accepts their own (often mistaken) assumptions.
Most individuals aren’t aware they can control their external, racialized world through internal work.
Leading Black intellectuals have long rendered similar assessments. Eight years after Allport concluded that racism functioned as a cognitive device for avoiding serious self-examination, author and activist James Baldwin offered, in a seminal letter to his nephew, “the danger in the minds and hearts of most [W]hite Americans is the loss of their identity.”
“Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality,” Baldwin wrote.
For White people who can define themselves only as not Black, suggesting they generate a different self-worth is akin to disrupting the very foundation of their identity.
Most individuals aren’t aware they can control their external, racialized world through internal work; instead, most people double down on easy narratives that frame people who look different as “other” and continue building self-definitions through distancing.
Gregory McMichael, a White supremacist convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black neighbor who had been jogging, told police he believed Arbery was responsible for a series of local break-ins. Even after police reviewed security camera footage and informed him nothing had been stolen, McMichael adhered to his rigid, embedded script, which elevated his own sense of self and diminished Arbery to “less than” and “other.”
McMichael’s racism, like all White supremacist beliefs, is revealed not in the surface idea of other people as inferior but in the powerful cognitive drive to avoid the broken parts of one’s self.
Understanding racism in this way — as a mental device to avoid confronting difficult self-work — helps us see how racist beliefs take shape and persist.
It also affords us an opportunity to be better. Facing our fears and taking responsibility for our own problems can be painful, but, ultimately, it’s the only path to healthy psychological development.
David Wall Rice, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Morehouse College and principal investigator of the Identity, Art and Democracy Lab. He is also the editor of “Identity Orchestration: Black Lives, Balance, and the Psychology of Self Stories.”
Julie Scelfo is a former staff writer for The New York Times, author of “The Women Who Made New York,” and a media critic who helps people discover the forces that help shape human thinking.