Americans have been taking part in difficult discussions around race all year, but some people refuse to see that racism is real.

By Jenna Birch
November 05, 2020
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This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind puzzling human behavior mysteries.

This year has been a hard year when it comes to race. The coronavirus pandemic brought health disparities to the forefront, with BIPOC suffering disproportionately from infections and deaths. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among other Black victims of police brutality) sparked national Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Now we have a nail-biting presidential election that has half the country asking: Why is this so damn close? It's all prompted Americans to have tough and necessary conversations about race that have been divisive to say the least.

“I will say it’s weird that so many books about "how to stop being racist" were flying off the shelves only for Trump to maintain, and even grow popularity,” tweeted social media user Toyin.

Time writer Justin Worland (@JustinWorland), added, “With more than 70 million votes received and counting, Biden may be favored to win the election, but to uproot the forces that perpetuate the deeply entrenched racism in this country, it’ll take more than maybe half the country.”

Calvin, another user, tweeted: “But it's not just enough to say that America is racist. We have to ask why. People can't help that they're born into racist families and a racist society. So we have to start attacking the systems that propagandize and enable racism, injustice, inequality and oppression to exist.”

To do what Calvin suggests means first acknowledging that racism is real. But why is it hard for some people to realize this, and also to understand its impact? Why does the word “privilege” incite guilt and defensiveness? Here are a few reasons, according to experts.

Acknowledging racism can threaten a person's self-image 

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get to it. Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD, an anthropologist and president of the Polis Institute Applied Research Institution focusing on Social Equity & Racial Equality, tells Health that our beliefs aren’t just cultural; they live in the brain. She says the brain contains a "default mode network," and this is where a person's identity lives.

Identity doesn't just mean your ethnic group and gender; it's also about thinking of yourself as a good, moral, and just person. Most of us want to believe we fit this description...even if we have racist family members or colleagues who tell off-color jokes and whose biases we don't challenge. It's no big deal, we tell ourselves, because we're not racist ourselves.

So let's say someone who fits this description is told some hard facts: that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth, Black men are almost three times more likely to die at the hands of police, and Black people have just ten cents of wealth for every dollar held by a white person.

You probably think this rational, fact-based approach to a moral issue will convince them to acknowledge the racism underlying these statistics. You think the person is going to hear the facts and “they will make a response based on those facts,” says Maroon. “But they’re not. They are going to make a response based on what they think the story is, and the story is: ‘I, a person telling you about systemic racism, am right, and you, a person who doesn’t understand systemic racism, are wrong.’”

When a person's beliefs about their own identity are challenged, their neurological system is shaken. “Basically, it’s the same as if you were to punch the person in the face,” says Maroon. This matters, she explains, because when you challenge someone’s belief about themselves and their place in the world, you are “pressing an instinctive response mechanism” of defensiveness. “They are instinctively hardwired, physiologically, to defend their position,” she adds.

A lack of self-awareness can prevent understanding

A 2019 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences showed that most prejudiced people did not think they were prejudiced. In other words, some people simply do not understand their own biases.

Morgan Mercer, the founder of Vantage Point, a company using virtual reality to build empathy and ultimately combat social issues like racism, says the inability to grasp the BLM movement boils down to a lack of self-awareness. Some people are simply not willing or able to see how deep the roots of racism go.

She points to slavery, which transformed into Jim Crow laws that continued to oppress Black Americans. Health care, education, criminal justice, voter accessibility, housing, and tax allocation all feed into this systemic racism and the remnants of Jim Crow, says Mercer. “If you’re a white American, or even an Asian-American, you don’t have the experience of growing up in a world where every single system was built upon oppression of your race,” she says. It’s impossible to relate without additional learning—which many people don’t even feel they need to do.

If you can't empathize or sympathize, you probably won't get it

Empathy with the victims of racism may be difficult for some people, because they have never experienced racism themselves—and they don’t know anyone who has.

Empathy is one thing, and sympathy is something else; anyone can be sympathetic to another person's experience. To be sympathetic to BIPOC people means recognizing the hurt they feel and that racism is morally wrong, Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, tells Health.

Feeling either empathy or sympathy toward people who are victimized by racism is important, Dr. Saltz says, and it's better than what some people are doing now, which is "ignoring or compartmentalizing,” she explains. “If we’re going to make change, people have to feel somewhat emotionally motivated by one or the other. But people that have lived an all-white life in an all-white area, and grew up that way and have continued in that life, it may be harder for them.”

Having racist beliefs, or having inherent privilege, doesn’t mean you are a bad person, of course. Says Mercer: “Privilege is a spectrum, just like racism is a spectrum. But to discredit a Black person’s experience in America is minimizing the problem. To discredit your privilege, you are minimizing the problem.

How to approach the conversation as an ally

If you're planning to initiate a conversation about racism with someone who doesn't acknowledge it, it’s important to take a compassionate approach, says Maroon. Set aside a specific time. Don’t practice "emotional violence," she says, by leaping to attack, especially on social media. “If your desire is to make a more equitable, just world where people of color are treated fairly and equally, then participating in emotional violence is exactly not going to result in that goal,” she says.

Mercer suggests approaching the dialogue from a conversational perspective, not a confrontational one. “I like to say, ‘Have you considered this?’ ‘I’m curious; where does this perspective come from?” she says. “Ultimately, the fault of why we’re here doesn’t rest on a single individual; a lot of our history books were literally white-washed. Many people weren’t taught the complexities or the nuances of the problem, or even about racism in America.”

Bottom line: It takes patience to get some people to recognize racism and racist beliefs internally, and then they need to be allowed “space to be wrong or admit that they’re wrong without being met with anger or judgment,” Mercer says. “I think that’s everyone’s biggest fear.”

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