Stereotyping Racists

Posted on January 6, 2012 by


Jay Smooth brings up an interesting point that when people are accused of making racist remarks, they often become defensive. And he explains that this happens largely for two reasons: one, that they are anxious about being considered a racist (“are you saying I’m a racist?!”); and two, that they fear having made a mistake (or experiencing failure). I think these reactions indicate how we as a society have turned the racist into a stereotype itself. The result being that the response many people have to an accusation of racism will often fall in line with the existence of a “bad racist” stereotype, and often stereotype threat.

In examining the psychological reasons for why we stereotype, we find that the “bad racist” stereotype serves several of those purposes. As a child, perceiving all racism as coming from the stereotypical “bad racist” serves the cognitive function of simplifying the environment around you. The “bad racist” stereotype also serves the motivational function of representing and preserving important social values (such as racial equality), helping to explain and justify our larger group beliefs in the United States, such as anti-hate-crime laws, and non-discrimination policies.

The socialization of children on racial values is definitely an area which I am not an expert — but I understand that an early age, children are taught to make a direct connection between “racism” and “bad,” if not “evil.” Racists are identified as an American out-group, and this builds up a strong gut-reaction of aversion to things labelled as “racist.” The problem with the racist stereotype, however, is that it allows us to avoid understanding critical issues and discussions surrounding racism and social justice —we don’t need to need to know the moral reasoning behind the injustice of racism, we just need to know that racism is bad, and our education need continue no further.

Rather than critically examining the racist remarks they make, many Americans may opt to dis-identify themselves from the domain of political correctness in which they feel that threat of being labelled as a racist. This would be similar to the researched examples of dis-identification in response to gender-related stereotype threats. As a psychological coping strategy to maintain self-esteem in the face of failure, a woman may stop seeing herself as “a math person” after experiencing failure in a series of situations in which she experienced stereotype threat. Similarly, many Americans may stop seeing themselves as “politically correct” people in order to deflect the anxiety that comes from being accused of racism — a coping mechanism to maintain their self-esteem after experiencing the failure of making racist remarks.

Of course, it may seem strange to compare stereotypes applied to racists with stereotypes applied to women and African-Americans. It may be better to instead relate the stereotyping of racists to the stereotyping of Republicans, or the stereotyping of communists. That is not to say that there is such a thing as good racism — but, as Jay Smooth says, we should not deny the possibility of good racists. No one is perfect. If we educate ourselves so as not to fall into a stereotypically evil concept of racists, the sooner we can stop ignoring our own racist tendencies and instead address them.

Post Note: This is a grammatical hell-hole. Stereotyping racists? Am I talking about the act of applying stereotypical characteristics to racists? Or racists who commit the act of stereotyping? A bad racist stereotype? Am I talking about a stereotype which is bad because it is racist? Or a stereotypical concept of a racist which has been imbued with bad connotations? God…Grammar is the real reason racism is still a problem in America (joking).