Discussing discrimination

Gwendolyn Keita, PhD, executive director of APA’s Public Interest Directorate discusses how and why to put discrimination conversations on the agenda.

Bias and discrimination can be difficult subjects to discuss. But there are very good reasons to get past our discomfort and talk about these important issues. We talked to Gwendolyn Keita, PhD, executive director of APA’s Public Interest Directorate, about how and why to put discrimination conversations on the agenda. Her responses are drawn, in part, from the APA report Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity (PDF, 2MB). 

APA Help Center: Why do people discriminate?

Gwendolyn Keita: Humans are naturally motivated to categorize people and objects. This is normal cognitive behavior. But discrimination goes beyond that. Research shows that the attitudes of people who discriminate are a reflection of a complex set of factors including their history, sociocultural practices, economic forces, sociological trends and the influence of community and family beliefs.

Some of the most damaging forms of discrimination are the result of deep-seated, destructive generalizations about a certain group. In such cases, people harbor unrealistic, disparaging beliefs about a group and its members, while also maintaining a sense of the moral or intellectual superiority of their own group. These individuals are consciously aware of their negative emotions toward members of the group, and intend to harm, disadvantage or avoid them.

Why should people make efforts to discuss discrimination?

GK: Human survival may be the most fundamental benefit of eliminating discrimination. That we fear and recoil from those who are different than we are is unfortunate and potentially dangerous.

A lack of diversity, perpetuated by discrimination, makes our society weaker. Diversity breeds creative thinking, democratic communities and innovation. Diversity in higher education makes better citizens and results in a more vibrant and prosperous society that benefits everyone. Productive, meaningful dialogues can help contribute significantly to awareness of these important truths.

What are the psychological factors that make people afraid or reluctant to talk about discrimination?

GK: According to psychological research, talking openly about discrimination may threaten to unmask both conscious and unconscious belief systems about one’s own bias and prejudices. In talking about discrimination, we are afraid of saying something that may be interpreted as discriminatory.

Talking about discrimination can also be uncomfortable for those with privilege because it requires them to acknowledge their inherent privilege. Even if they consider themselves unbiased, they have to acknowledge they benefit from the system that keeps discriminatory practices in place.

Societal norms surrounding the open discussion of topics related to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability and class differences hinder an honest and open discussion of these topics. Those societal norms can influence people to avoid or only superficially engage in meaningful and honest discussions on these socially taboo topics.

What discussion techniques can foster productive dialogues about discrimination?

GK: Research has found that certain approaches are helpful for achieving meaningful dialogues about bias and discrimination:

  • Discuss the possibility of biased social upbringing and conditioning.
  • Acknowledge emotions and feelings. Strong emotions, such as anxiety, guilt, defensiveness or anger are often ignored or suppressed when discussing prejudice and discrimination.
  • Share personal challenges and fears. In particular, when group leaders or other dominant group members disclose their own doubts, mistakes and imperfections, it sends a message that it is safe for others to examine their own feelings and shortcomings.
Sometimes discrimination stems from unconscious beliefs or “implicit biases” that people aren’t aware they have. How can people make efforts to be aware of their own biases and avoid their influence?

GK: People are able to change and modify prejudicial attitudes, even in instances where these attitudes are outside conscious control. Some research suggests that one possible route to reducing discrimination may be increasing individuals’ internal motivation to eliminate prejudice. Increased motivation coupled with an awareness of implicit biases can lead to the consistent effort necessary to reduce one’s discriminatory behaviors and prejudicial attitudes.

For example, research has shown when people take a course on prejudice and are exposed to positively viewed examples of the target group, their levels of automatic negativity are reduced. Exposure and context really matter for changing attitudes that people often perceive as inborn and immutable.

Besides talking about discrimination more openly, what can and should people do to address discrimination where it occurs?

GK: Psychologists know from extensive research that most Americans experience discrimination early in their lives. Prejudiced attitudes are complex, and, although difficult, they are capable of changing.

Some of the most promising strategies psychologists have found for overcoming discrimination involve specific conditions for enhancing contact between people. Such conditions provide opportunities for personal, self-revealing interactions and working together toward a common goal. This process is especially effective when different groups realize they need each other because neither group can achieve a given goal on its own.

One’s upbringing and influences in the earliest years of life also have a tremendous impact on how a person develops his or her perspective as it relates to bias and discrimination. That’s why it’s so helpful for parents and other adults to think about how they talk to kids about discrimination.

As people learn more about each other in ways that illuminate strengths, dispel negative images and eliminate adverse outside influences, attitudes become less prejudiced and interactions between the members of the groups become more harmonious.