Growing up in a racist, sexist, classist and violent society…

The political will always be personal. This week, as our nation dealt with the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, we at the Critical Therapy Center have witnessed the psychological and personal meanings of this trial from various people. Hurt, anger, fear, and disappointment are a few of the emotions we’ve all had. For some, hope that this can be a catalyst for change has also come up. Hope that this verdict can spark a national debate, rage, and desire to create a society where racism, sexism, classism and violence are not a way of life.

Florida’s “stand your ground” law whereby deadly force is permitted if the person “reasonably believes” it is necessary to protect his/her own life, the life of another or to prevent a forcible felony is a law rooted in violence and racism. More precisely, in a post 1970s era of “tough on crime”, “war on drugs” environment, prioritizing the call to armed self-defense in the legislatures has been a white, reactionary cause. Since it was Zimmerman who stalked Martin, the question remains: what ground is a young black man entitled to and on what grounds may he defend himself? Or is it unsafe for a black man to walk the streets of Florida, especially at night?

Dismissing what happened to Trayvon Martin by focusing only on Zimmerman’s racism, fails to acknowledge the cultural forces that may have been at work on his behavior. Years of social psychological research has shown the importance of situational forces, while highlighting our own internalized racism. In short, racist, patriarchal and sexist societies produce racist, patriarchal, sexist and violent people. This statement was demonstrated by The Police Officer’s Dilemma  set up by Joshua Correll and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, and published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002) to test the idea of how people might respond differently to Black and White targets.

Correll and colleagues designed a shooting game to test how ordinary people might make the split-second decision to either shoot or not shoot a potentially armed target. Groups of college students were told that a series of people would come on the screen in front of them and would either be holding a gun or a neutral object, like a wallet, aluminum can, or cell phone. If the participants correctly shot an armed target, they would receive 10 points; if they correctly did not shoot an unarmed target, they would receive 5 points. Shooting an unarmed target deducted 20 points, and not shooting an armed target – the most potentially dangerous outcome for a real police officer on the streets – would result in the harshest penalty of all, a 40-point deduction.

As each target appeared on screen, participants had to decide quickly if the target was holding a gun or a harmless object, and subsequently whether to shoot or not shoot by pushing a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button. What the participants did not know was that the researchers had manipulated one critical feature of the targets – some of the targets were White and some were Black.

The researchers uncovered what they termed shooter bias. Over a series of four studies, they noticed that participants were faster to (correctly) shoot an armed target when he was Black, and faster to (correctly) decide not to shoot an unarmed target when he was White. The much more interesting and painful finding lies in what happened when people decided to shoot the target when he was actually holding nothing more than a wallet or a cell phone, much like what happened in the real-life case of Trayvon Martin. As it turns out, the participants were consistently more likely to accidentally shoot unarmed targets when they were Black.

The researchers thought this reaction must be influenced by racism. So they asked the following question: wouldn’t non-racist people be more likely to disregard the color of the target’s skin when making judgments? Wouldn’t non-racist people – especially those who are well aware of the negative stereotypes towards Black people in American culture, and those who consciously try to fight against prejudice in their everyday lives – be more forgiving on the trigger? Sadly, the answers were quite disturbing.

No matter if the participants were racist or not, the findings showed that they were equally likely to shoot unarmed Black targets; outright levels of racism did not predict the results at all. But, they also noticed that there was one thing that predicted performance on the task – the participants’ level of awareness that there is prejudice towards Black people in American society, even if the participant categorically did not support those stereotypes. In simple terms, being highly aware of prejudice in the world, even if you don’t agree with, support, or like that prejudice, makes it more likely that you might make the fateful mistake of shooting an unarmed target when making split-second decisions in uncertain conditions. The more aware you are of cultural stereotypes, the more likely you are to make a biased mistake. In short, did racism motivate George Zimmerman’s actions against Trayvon Martin? Yes. But does a person have to be racist to make the same split-second decision? No. Does this mean that Florida should change a law that allows people to kill others? Yes

What this means, for all of us, is that growing up in a culture that endorses certain stereotypes (blacks are bad, immigrants steal our jobs, women are inferior, etc.) makes us more likely to believe them. These stereotypes, even when we disagree with them, still become part of our thought process and even when we don’t believe them, they still impact our behavior in unconscious ways.

The consequences of growing up in a world where there is racism, sexism and patriarchy hurts all of us. Perhaps the change begins by admitting the hardest thing: we are all George Zimmerman. Living in a world where people feel superior to others based on race, class, gender or religious affiliations, we need to realize that at some point, we too, will feel superior towards others and entitled to hurt others based on those beliefs. If we don’t learn how to value diversity and create an equitable world we are all doomed. If we don’t eliminate these stereotypes from our discourse, from our society, from our conscious or bring them into consciousness so we can analyze them, we will always be imprisoned by them.

So where is the hope? The same place where we find the despair we find the hope – within ourselves. We can be part of the solution, or perpetuate the problem. Think about yourself, how you view the world and how much that is influenced by what you’ve been told, seen or heard on TV, or in magazines, homes and schools. Research shows how growing up in a society affects how we process information and weigh evidence. Remembering that our quickest, most reactionary forms of thinking don’t necessarily provide good results, pause before you think you know the answer. Ask yourself am I aligned with the aggressor or the victim? Am I sharing power or exerting power over someone? Don’t reduce the Trayvon Martin case as a tragedy resulting from the evil actions of an evil man, but challenge yourself to go deeper and to ask yourself – do I want to be part of the change? Is this verdict my call to action?


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