Racial Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination
Research clearly shows the existence of stereotypes and the power they exert on social thought (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Baron and Byrne (1997) also reported that recent research has shown a strong link between stereotypes and prejudice. They noted that research has shown that prejudice can activate stereotypes and stereotypes strengthen prejudice which leads to a vicious circle that can have dire consequences on the targets of the prejudice. Baron and Byrne (1997) refer to discrimination as “prejudice in action” (pg. 214). Today open expressions of prejudice have greatly declined in most countries, however expressions of prejudice in social behavior have become more subtle (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Even though I was born after the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, racial stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination all played a part in growing up in South Georgia.
Stereotypes, as defined by Baron and Byrne (1997), are beliefs that the members of specific social groups share certain characteristics or traits. As previously stated, Baron and Byrne (1997) report that stereotypes exert power on social thought and this affects how we process social information. When information is relevant to an activated stereotype, it is usually processed more quickly than information that is not relevant to the stereotype (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Additionally, Baron & Byrne (1997) report that people who hold stereotypes are more likely to pay attention to information that is consistent with the stereotype than to information that is inconsistent with the stereotype. Information that is inconsistent with the stereotype is either ignored, refuted, or subtly changed so as to be consistent with the activated stereotype (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Stereotypes may be activated and influence our thinking without our being consciously aware it has occurred and without our intent (Baron & Byrne, 1997). This effect occurs when we encounter members of a specific social group with which we hold a stereotype and can be reduced if we are cognitively busy (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Baron and Byrne (1997) report that stereotypes require cognitive resources which may not be available if we are busy thinking about other things.
I was taught by my teachers that all people are equal. However, at home I was exposed to the stereotypes that my parents had formed about members of specific social groups. One example of a racial stereotype that I often overheard was
that black people like fried chicken. It was also often said that black people like soul food or foods such as collard greens, turnips, and corn bread to go along with their fried chicken. Black people were also seen as being good dancers and very athletic. Unfortunately, whenever my parents and I encountered a black person, he/she was initially viewed as a poor person who was probably in some sort of government aid program.
I attended a small school where our graduating class consisted of thirty students. Almost one-third of our class had been together since kindergarten which together with the size of our class made us an emotionally close group. As part of our senior English course, we discussed some of the previously mentioned stereotypes. There was one black girl in our English class. She had been the only black girl in our entire class until our junior year when we were joined by another black girl. The teacher asked Sheila, the black girl, if she would like to address any of the racial stereotypes mentioned in class. Sheila did address several of the stereotypes and was gracious enough to answer our questions on how she thought they came to be. For example, she thought that the stereotype about the soul food may have come from the days of slavery when the black women did all of the cooking for the slave owners and therefore became very good cooks. These cooks passed their recipes for these home grown foods down through the generations.
After our discussion with Sheila, many of the racial stereotypes about black people that I had heard all of my life and had unknowingly taken as my own sounded ridiculous. Ever since that I day, I have made a conscious effort to stop racial stereotypes from coming to mind whenever I see a member of any ethnic group other than white. While I was working on this paper, I asked myself, my coworkers, and my family what racial stereotypes come to mind when they see a black person walking towards them on the street or in the mall. Initially, everyone, including myself, was unable to think of a single stereotype. Gradually, some of the same old stereotypes surfaced. However, in this age of political correctness everyone was hesitant to say what they had thought of out loud for fear of being called a racist.
Prejudice, as defined by Baron and Byrne (1997), is a negative attitude toward members of a specific social group that is exclusively based on their membership in that group. Prejudice is similar to stereotypes in that information that is relevant or related to the prejudice is given more attention and processed deeper than information that is not relevant or related to the prejudice (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Since information that is relevant to the prejudice receives more attention and is processed more deeply, it is also remembered more accurately and tends to increase the strength of the prejudice views over time (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Baron and Byrne (1997) reported that prejudice, as a special kind of attitude, may involve more than negative evaluations of a specific group. Prejudiced persons may also experience negative emotions or feelings when they think of or are in the presence of members of the group they do not like (Baron & Byrne, 1997).
I have been exposed to many people who hold prejudice views toward black people. One prejudice view that I have often heard is that black are more likely to commit crimes than white people. I have seen many people, who believe that black people are more dangerous than white people, become upset or nervous when they realize that the only other customer in the store they are in is a black person. This is especially true if the other customer is a young black male. I have also worked with people in the past who would become nervous if a large group of black people entered the store in which we worked. The store we worked in was located in an outlet mall and many of our customers were traveling with church groups or social groups. They would often enter the store in large groups. However, my coworker would only become nervous or frightened about being robbed when the group consisted of black people.
Many of my family members have prejudice views toward black people. Just as I mentioned earlier about stereotypes, I have tried very hard to not form prejudice views toward black people or people of any racial or ethnic background
different from my own. Baron and Byrne (1997) report that prejudice continues because by putting down a group we hold negative views towards helps us to boost our self-concept. I believe that most everyone, including myself, has held prejudice views and has used them to enhance or protect their self-concept.
Discrimination, as defined by Baron and Byrne (1997), is negative behavior directed toward the members of specific social groups who are the objects of prejudice. Due to laws, social pressure, and the fear of retaliation, people are no longer openly practicing their prejudice views (Baron & Byrne, 1997). I witnessed open discrimination in action when I worked in a retail store located in the local outlet mall. My coworker, that I previously mentioned as getting nervous when a large group of black people would enter our store, would closely follow black people around the store until they left. She once told me that we had to watch “them” (black people) every minute or they would rob us blind. On more than one occasion, I heard our black customers say they would never return to our store because of the way she followed them around.
I have seen many people put their prejudice views into practice in more subtle ways. One example occurred when I was in high school. One of my closest friends had a crush on a young black man. Because she was white and he was black, many people spread vicious rumors about my friend. She never actually dated the young man, but because of their prejudice views towards interracial relationships she was not invited to several parties and was shunned by many people except for her closest friends. One year later, she was dating a nice young (white) man, whom she really like, when he suddenly said they had to stop seeing each other because his parents had heard the rumors and no longer approved of their relationship. Several years later, she moved away and was engaged to be married when someone felt that her fiancé should know that she had once had a crush on a black man. Thankfully, her fiancé did not hold the same prejudice views and they were married. They have now been married for nearly nine years.
Racial stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are all tough subjects to talk about. No one wants to be labeled as a racist in today’s society. I have grown up in the South where racial stereotypes and prejudices run deep. Baron and Byrne (1997) state that one basis for prejudice is early experience through which children may be trained to hate members of specific groups. I can not think of a direct experience which would cause me to hold prejudice views against any group, therefore the prejudice views that I do have probably came from my parents. However, as an informed adult, I can choose to not pass on these prejudice views to my children. I may be able to further reduce prejudice in my children by exposing them to racially and ethnically diverse groups at an early age under favorable conditions. I believe that my generation has come a long way in reducing prejudice; and by teaching our children not to hate, we will go even further.