Friday, August 22, 2008


by Emily Stephens

This past June, Charleston High School in Mississippi held their first interracial prom. That was hard for me to believe considering the social progress I thought we had achieved as a free nation.

Despite integrating schools in 1970, many Delta schools maintained a system of separate proms for decades, one prom the white students and one for the black students, both organized privately. Morgan Freeman, a Charleston native, offered to sponsor an interracial prom for over ten years. The school finally took him up on it.

Chasidy Buckley, a student at Charleston described the prom as “a happy and comfortable night,” despite the fact that some white parents didn’t let their kids attend and even insisted on holding a private prom. “That night, when we stepped in that door, everybody just had a good time. We proved ourselves wrong. We proved the community wrong, because they didn't think that it was going to happen." Buckley hopes the entire town can be influenced by this interracial prom. “…once they see that blacks and whites can come together in school and have fun together, then they'll see that the community can change, too."

Disturbingly, a
study in 1990 found that the majority of whites rated African Americans and Hispanics as less intelligent than themselves. Whites also thought these two minority groups were prone to violence and would rather be on welfare than work. These attitudes are dangerous, and can lead to justification of destructive thinking and behavior.

American Psychological Association (APA) suggests a few possible reasons why we adopt racist and prejudiced behaviors. It is a natural cognitive mechanism for humans to feel better about themselves by finding faults in others and overemphasizing our uniqueness within or likeness to our “group”. We are also impacted by years of social conditioning where family, community, media, etc. influence our view of those who are different.

Did you know that individuals with particular personality traits are more likely to demonstrate group bias?
Children who were rated as “highly biased” at 6 years old showed bias differences from other children as early as 6 months of age. This suggests that personality differences influence prejudices at an age that predates the influence of our parents, and it poses an interesting question: Can a person be born prejudiced?

Whether or not we’re “born prejudiced,” we naturally begin to form stereotypes and prejudices throughout our lives about particular groups and people. We expect certain people to behave according to our preconceived notions about their race, religion, etc. The brain efficiently categorizes a black person as this, or a white person as that. I can’t help but wonder why the brain doesn’t correct inaccurate stereotypes when people behave differently than expected? In other words, why do stereotypes endure despite contradictory experiences?
Quite often we maintain stereotypes to feel better about ourselves. Why challenge our way of thinking if it supports our self-esteem and condones our real-world benefits and privileges? Psychologists found that people put a great deal of energy into maintaining inaccurate world views. We seek out experiences that support our prejudices, and disregard or belittle incidents that go against what we want to believe. In fact, the more strongly we hold a stereotype, the better we recall experiences that support it. We rationalize away contradictory events, making a black person who is articulate or a gay man who is not effeminate merely the “exception” to the rule.

Just coping with race is
mentally draining. White people--even those who are not greatly prejudiced--experience a mental capacity decrease after interacting with black men. Participants in one study felt strained because they were trying to remain race-neutral. Their brain activity increased when looking at pictures of black males--their right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes to be exact--an area associated with thoughts and behaviors. Scientists believe this increased activity is an attempt at avoiding prejudiced behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

The Charleston situation really got me thinking… It made me evaluate myself, my own prejudices, fixed stereotypes, and racist attitudes. I’ll admit I’m one of those white people who don’t want to be racist, but who finds themselves occasionally thinking unwanted prejudiced thoughts.

I had the unique opportunity of growing up on an Indian reservation. My elementary school was called Chinook. Half the population was Muckleshoot and the other half was middle-class Caucasian. Then, there was one African American kid (Jason) thrown into the mix.

The school was definitely separated by invisible race lines. It wasn’t anything the teachers did or any fault of the curriculum--we participated once a week doing American Indian crafts, enjoying fry bread, or watching someone’s father perform dances or puppet stories of Muckleshoot folklore. However, there was always a silent, lengthy divide between the Indians, the white folks, and Jason.

The white kids seemed to be on top of the food chain when it came to home life, economic well-being, expectations, and privileges. The Indians fell a good distance behind, mostly because it seemed everyone was just waiting for them to get into trouble or drop out. And Jason?

Jason was alone at the bottom. I remember during a few walks home from school, the Indians would wait for Jason in the back alley so they could beat him up. I don’t think he ever did anything wrong. Mostly, he’d take his beating then walk home. Sadly, just like Charleston, it was the way of life, the unspoken natural order of things. I remember how disturbed I was by it all. I remember the futility of trying to change things, and then just finally accepting it.

It is disturbing to me that I accepted it. We are silent about too many things. I am glad that although race is much less spoken of these days, courageous people like the students at Charleston are breaking the mold. I think the only way to reverse our biased mindsets is to admit our prejudices (if only internally), make an effort to befriend those who are different than us, and then “walk a mile in their shoes.” (Thank you Harper Lee.)

We can allow people to be alien and different, and we can justify fearing them or remaining silent… Or we actually try to know those who are different, and challenge our inaccurate views.

Katz, P. A., & Barrett, M. (1997). The development of prejudice in children and adolescents. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 18, 1997.

Pratto, F. Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L. M., & Malle, B. F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 67:741-763.


Karama said...

My thoughts on a related subject:

Use and Misuse of Race in Biomedical Research.

Em said...

Thanks karama! I appreciated your blog.