ISU psychology department emphasizes diversity


Racism and stereotypes will never entirely disappear. 

Adam Sodders

Staff and faculty in the psychology department at Iowa State have decided to put special emphasis on race in their curriculum. 

Slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement and today’s rhetoric about Latin American immigration are some examples of how, in the past and the present, racial differences continue to be a significant part of American culture. 

Psychologists and sociologists view the concept of race in humans differently than most people, and some chose to study the origins of the concept. 

“Humans have normal perception processes,” said Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology. “[Humans] categorize people, things, groups, everything.”

Anderson, a social psychologist, is an expert on aggression and violence. He said aggression can manifest when racial prejudice is used against a person. 

Every human develops stereotypes of people who are different than them, Anderson said. It is natural for people to do this and even necessary to detect threats. 

There is a caveat, however. 

“‘Racist can mean a lot of things,” Anderson said. “Categorizing becomes negative when it’s used to treat people in a harmful way.”

To Anderson, harmful behavior isn’t always obvious, even to the perpetrator.

Microaggressions, or subtle behaviors that reflect racial stereotypes or hurt someone’s feelings, aren’t always clear. 

“The outright use of slurs isn’t the only way racism manifests,” Anderson said. “It can be in our tiny reactions, our subtle behavior.”

Anderson said the entire psychology department is on board with the plan to add more race and ethnicity education to the psychology curriculum. 

Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chairwoman of the psychology department, gave some information about the mission to educate on race and racism. 

“I got my faculty together, and we talked about racism,” Cutrona said. “The faculty of color said they had experienced racism, like many students.”

Cutrona said she is dissatisfied by some politicians’ and candidates’ rhetoric, which she sees as racist. She mentioned Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican U.S. Representative Steve King, of Iowa’s 4th District. 

“Some of the things [King and Trump] have said are openly racist,” she said. “I’m afraid this kind of aggressive rhetoric is catching on in popularity.”

After talking to her faculty and hearing the stories of multicultural students at Iowa State, Cutrona and others in the psychology department decided to openly discuss racism in a series of op-ed articles. 

Cutrona also said she wants to see more discussion and study of racism in psychology classes. Sociology can also give insights into the concept of racism. 

“There is an element of race to many industries in this country,” said Kyle Burgason, assistant professor of sociology. His focus is on criminology, and he teaches African-American studies courses. 

Burgason said there is a disproportionate number of black people, Latinos and other minorities in U.S. prisons. Anderson said negative stereotyping can have effects at an individual and societal level. 

“When the beliefs we hold about different groups are negative, it can lead us to treat people in a way that is harmful,” Anderson said. 

He said opening up and experiencing other cultures and people would help reduce and eliminate negative stereotypes. 

“We can learn to recognize when a stereotype might be influencing us,” he said. “We can learn to combat it.”

Burgason believes education and awareness of differences between cultures and ethnicities would help combat negative and racist behavior. He used the recent national tensions between certain police and some members of the black community as an example.

“People need to be aware of different groups and communities,” he said.

In Burgason’s opinion, some officers need to understand that not all young, black men are criminals or hateful of police. Conversely, he said some members of the black communities should stop demonizing all police officers.

“These negative feelings probably come from a lack of understanding between the two groups,” Burgason said. “They stereotype one another.”

Racism has had a complex and important roll in American history, Burgason said, adding that the number of systems and industries in the United States that have no problems with discrimination would be easier to count than those that are, to some degree, discriminatory.

“The real estate industry is a common place where discrimination takes place,” he said. “For instance, black people who grow up in a poor neighborhood and get out somehow often do not return.”

He said after leaving a poor community, a person moves to a potentially safer, less stressful environment. As a result, their resources, knowledge and educated views are unavailable to their old community.

Motivation for some people in the psychology department to start a series of writings on racism came after an on-campus event.

Because of events such as the Students Against Bigotry protest of Trump visiting Iowa State, Cutrona said she sees students who need a more inclusive environment.

A forum was set up by Students Against Bigotry and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs after the protest, where people talked about their experiences with racism on campus.

Cutrona said she was moved after seeing the students speak at the forum and listening to their stories.  

“Many [of the multicultural students] were so hurt not only because of the protest but what happened before and since in their lives,” she said.

Hearing similar negative experiences from multicultural staff and faculty in the psychology department also motivated Cutrona to start organizing against racism.

Cutrona said she realizes she can’t control what goes on in other departments, but she said she hopes the steps the psychology department is taking will set an example. 

“We are getting ready for action,” she said. “We are having a series of meetings and preparing to vote on measures to take to combat racism.”

One measure Cutrona suggested was a new psychology class that would focus on recognizing and educating about stereotypes. She also said she would like hopeful psychology majors to be required to take a diversity class as part of the curriculum.

Anderson said fighting racism and negative stereotypes is not an easy task, and as a society, the United States may never fix all problems with racism. He said major changes are much easier on the individual level. 

“We can be totally successful as individuals by never saying racist things, in public or in private,” Anderson said. “Tolerance and respect for others are tools to understand each other.”