PSYCH MATTERS: Moving beyond racism at Iowa State

Submission Note

Overview of Editorial Series

The Department of Psychology would like to help build a more welcoming climate for racial/ethnic minority students, staff and faculty at Iowa State.

One way in which we would like to demonstrate our commitment to reducing racism and discrimination is through this editorial series.

In this continuing series, educational pieces on the psychology of racism and personal stories written by various faculty and students will be shared. Last time, we heard from Dr. Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology, on the topics of prejudice, discrimination and microaggression, a special form of discrimination. This week, Dr. Anderson offers suggestions on how to enrich our lives through actively cultivating friendships and collegial relationships with people who are different from ourselves.

This series was edited bv Stephanie Carrera, graduate student in psychology and Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology

Stereotyping, Prejudice, Discrimination, and Various “isms”—Part 3: Learning to Appreciate Diversity


Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series described stereotype-based beliefs, prejudiced feelings and inappropriate discriminatory behavior. They noted that the psychological processes underlying them are normal aspects of being human. These “normal” processes often lead to inappropriate treatment of other people, treatment that may be unethical, counterproductive and even illegal. These behaviors can be lumped into the various “isms” that are frequently discussed, such as racism, sexism and ageism.

Parts 1 and 2 also noted that racial relations in the United States have improved during the past 40 years, but there still is considerable room for improvement. You may wonder, “How can I fight against normal psychological processes that lead to stereotypes, prejudice and harmful discriminatory behavior?” If these tendencies are built into the human information processing system, how can we defeat them?

There are two answers to these questions. First, we can’t totally defeat them. There will always be a tendency to categorize people into groups and to develop stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory behavior tendencies toward different groups. Some of these will be positive (especially for our in-groups), some negative, others both positive and negative. These tendencies are usually strongest when there is little direct contact with members of these outgroups.

Second, we can use what we know about stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination to reduce their harmful impact and to create new more positive beliefs, feelings and behavioral tendencies toward people who differ from us in some way. If we change the input to the human psychological system, we can change the output.

As we’ve noted before, humans are constantly learning. As a child, I was fortunate to grow up in a family that did not teach racist stereotypes that were so prevalent in my rural Midwest all-white farming community. I heard the basic stereotype beliefs about various racial groups, primarily from schoolmates and television, but never from my parents. My stereotypes were relatively weak because of lack of practice and learning. One important step in fighting against stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination is to simply not teach them to children. We can intentionally teach that such beliefs, feelings and behaviors are wrong and will not be tolerated. During President Obama’s second election campaign, my 83-year-old mother threw a customer out of her church’s thrift shop after he started a racist rant about Obama, blacks and Muslims.

We can take this one step further. We can “walk the walk” by actively cultivating friendships with people who differ from us. There is a plethora of research on what is known as “the contact hypothesis.” We now know that when people of different races or ethnicities (or any other intergroup “differences”) are brought together to work on common goals (such as learning in the classroom, building a neighborhood playground, working in industry or business), there is a reduction in the kinds of negative stereotypes and prejudices that are most destructive. New more positive beliefs and feelings are learned, friendships develop and people learn to appreciate individuals who may differ from them.

A benefit of attending a large university is the number of opportunities that students have to learn about different types of people. ISU is one such place, and even though our student population is not as racially/ethnically diverse as might be optimal, it nonetheless provides good opportunities for everyone to learn that people with different skin tones, sexual preferences, religions, languages and so on are actually not that different from each other in the ways that count. If you, as a student, really want to benefit from your college years, make the effort to get involved in activities that bring you into contact with people who are different from you.

Another way that modern societies can (and do) fight against stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination is to take social and political action. By making discrimination against people on the basis of their race, religion or sexual orientation illegal, for example, the U.S. political system not only has changed behavior, but also has changed attitudes and beliefs, including stereotypes and prejudices.

Of course, the legally mandated changes in behavior have not and cannot be expected to wholly eliminate unwarranted stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, but these legal prescriptions and prohibitions have helped move U.S. society toward becoming a more tolerant and inclusive one. The point is that your voting behavior and political activities can have a positive impact on these and related issues.

Students, faculty and staff can also have a positive impact toward the goal of reducing stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination by everyday actions (e.g., smile and acknowledge outgroup members in passing) and the occasional special event (e.g., attend food fairs, rallies in support of various minority groups). Furthermore, if you witness inappropriate behavior (e.g., a racist or sexist comment), let it be known that you do not approve of such behavior.

Obviously, you will want to handle such incidents with care and tact. But sometimes you may have to act more forcefully, as when my mother made it clear that racist rants were not going to be tolerated in her church thrift store.

One question that majority-culture people (e.g., Whites in the U.S.) sometimes raise is, “What do I get out of diversity?” First, treating people on the basis of who they are rather than an over-generalized factually incorrect stereotype is the right thing to do. Second, learning about different groups of people and cultures can be very rewarding.

Developing friendships with a large variety of people from various subcultures within the United States and from cultures around the world has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life. As students, you have many of these same opportunities during your college years. I urge you to take advantage of these opportunities.