Recent events in Charlottesville have left many shocked and wondering what makes a person racist. In these times where it seems that we have become more enlightened in terms of our views about individuals from other cultures it can be hard to imagine anyone feeling so much anger toward a group of people simply because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs.
Surprisingly, there are those psychological scientists that believe that people are born with a level of innate racism. These researchers argue that humans are instinctively observant of the differences between themselves and others. Based on this way of thinking, a person will remain racist unless they have a strong influence in their lives that explain to them that they need to view people from other backgrounds as being equal
Many however believe that racism is learned. In other words, people that have racist beliefs had parents or mentors that taught them those beliefs. Children hold their parents and elders in high esteem and believe almost anything that they teach them at a young age. Alternatively, many believe that having one or more negative experiences with a particular group can create racist views. For example, If an individual was assaulted on two different occasions by people of the same race or religion.
Helping people overcome prejudices can be quite challenging. Depending on the depth and intensity of their beliefs it can be a Herculean task. In more extreme cases, it can be like deprogramming someone who has been brainwashed in a cult. It means completely deconstructing an individual’s belief system and reconstructing it in a healthier, more realistic way.
Cognitive dissonance is an important concept here. This occurs when facts that a person encounters run in contrast to their beliefs. For example, if a white supremacist receives much needed charity from a person from a group that they hate, it creates dissonance. The experience of cognitive dissonance can be deeply upsetting as it makes a person question who they are and what they stand for. However, the process of going through cognitive dissonance is often the first step in deconstructing racist ideology.
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