Is Racism Natural..?
Updated: 9 November 2015
As a part-time teacher, teaching psychological and sociological approaches to prejudice & discrimination, every year I found myself confronted with this question from one or more of my A-Level students.
With posters on some Internet discussion forums making statements like: “I think they [British National Party, Britain First, etc] is only saying what most people think but are too afraid to say” , it seems appropriate to me to revisit the students’ question from an Integrated SocioPsychology perspective.
It was explaining Henri Tajfel & John Turner’s Social Identity Theory (1979) in relation to the formation of in-groups and out-groups that usually triggered the student’s question as to whether racism is natural. In essence, Tajfel & Turner say that, simply by identifying yourself with one group as opposed to another, your group becomes the in-group and the other becomes the out-group.
According to Tajfel & Turner, this basic act of social categorisation – one group has one identity label and the other group has a different identity label – is enough to bring about prejudice and discrimination. Because we invest something of our self in the groups to which we belong, we need our in-groups to be at least equal to and preferably superior to the out-groups (social comparison) for the sake of the self-esteem we have invested in our membership of our group. Even if our own group is deficient in some respects, there must be some ways in which we can demonstrate superiority over the out-group(s). Thus, for example, some of the worst violence amongst football fans takes place when the fans of a team in a lower division attack those following a team in a higher one. It’s almost as if, because their team is not superior on the field, they can at least try to be superior in a fight.
Tajfel & Turner’s ideas have been used to explain all manner of conflict. They help to understand:-
- (obviously) violence amongst rival groups of football fans – eg: 2009’s murderous clash between Millwall vs West Ham
- the lingering traces of hostility between Yorkshire and Lancashire more than 500 years after the Wars of the Rose
- the easily-triggered antipathy between the English and the Scottish
- in part, at least, the ‘Little Englander’ opposition to the ‘European project’
- in part, at least, the resentment of northerners towards southerners
- in part, at least, the antipathy of Catholics and Protestants towards each other and similar hostility between Shi’ites and Sunnis
and, of course
- white skin vs black skin
How much our sense of identity is tied into the labels our groups have can perhaps best be illustrated by the fact that anyone with the name of Singh is usually assumed to be an Indian Sikh whereas someone with the name of Khan will be a Pakistani Muslim. Such labels are used to identify members of your in-groups and those who are in the out-groups.
Tajfel & Turner’s observations of the effects of identifying with a group and categorising yourself as part of that group have been supported by many other psychological and sociological studies. Sense of identity and the need to identify with a group are the critical elements in in-group and out-group structure. So it seems we have a need to categorise ourselves into groups and to adhere to the norms and values of the group (social identification). Thus, if the values and norms of the group include racism, the members of the group are likely to reflect that in their own avowed beliefs. Even when we may not be comfortable with some of the group’s beliefs, the need to belong can be so strong that we show compliance to the group and act as if we do. By adopting the norms and values of the group, we show normative influence – see Conformity.
Explaining the need to belong
What Tajfel & Turner’s model doesn’t do, however, is tell us why we have this need to belong to groups.
For that we have to turn to the work of Abraham Maslow and Clare W Graves. Maslow, in his famous Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1970, 1971) – listed Belonging as the most basic need after Survival and Shelter. We display this need to Belong in the way we talk about ‘our family’, ‘our team’, ‘my mother’, ‘my father’s son’, ‘my wife’, ‘my wife’s husband’, ‘my cat’s owner’, ‘my employer’, ‘my employer’s employee’, etc, etc…these are all terms describing relationships in terms of belonging to someone or something…or of them belonging to us. When I used to ask my students who they belonged to, they almost always said “No one!” – accompanied often with the dismissive arrogance of 17-year-olds! However, once I started describing myself as “my father’s son…my wife’s husband…my stepdaughter’s stepfather…my cat’s ‘daddy’…your teacher because, in this respect at least, I belong to you”, they usually began to get it.
So, if at a pretty basic level we define ourselves in terms of who we belong to and who belongs to us, then clearly Belonging is fundamental to our sense of identity. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Maslow saw Belonging as a foundation for Esteem. An illustration of how critical Belonging is for Esteem is illustrated in the fact that many people go through a period of at least mild Depression, with accompanying feelings of worthlessness, when a relationship ends. That is, of course, unless they have someone else to move on to – ie: a new Belonging which often boosts self-esteem.
So, if Belonging, including self-dentification, is a foundation for Esteem, that explains the need to join with others – eg: groups – and the fact our self-esteem is then tied in to the success of the group.
Of course, not everyone commits to belong to someone. Clearly hermits prefer to live on their own! However, the numbers of such people in relation to the general population are very small indeed. Not everybody needs to belong to quite the same degree. People high in the temperamental dimension of Intraversion and those already high in self-esteem are less likely to need the social acceptance that comes from belonging to a group.
Graves (1978/2005), a correspondent of Maslow’s, took his ideas further through some 25+ years of painstaking research. Graves came to see Maslow’s ‘needs’ as being driven by motivational systems or coping systems responding to the ‘life conditions’ someone is experiencing. In the Spiral Dynamics construct (1996) developed by Don Beck & Chris Cowan from Graves’ work, these motivational systems are termed vMEMES and colour-coded.
Graves’ research led him to collapse Maslow’s second and third levels into one. This, in Spiral Dynamics, is the PURPLE vMEME which seeks safety in belonging. Thus, it is the need for safety which drives us to belong and to find acceptance from those we wish to belong with.
As Tajfel & Turner observed, when we identify ourselves with an in-group, we absorb their norms and values so that we become ‘like them’.
The ‘tribalism’ Desmond Morris (1977) famously wrote about is the result of this seeking safety in belonging. Effectively the PURPLE vMEME motivates us to seek and belong with those who are like us in some way so that we – banded together as a tribe, the in-group – can stand together against the out-groups. Whether as true Amazon jungle-type tribes or close families or gangs of football fans, tribalism is fundamental to all groupings of human beings. And, once you identify with a group, it very easily becomes our tribe vs your tribe.
Thus, to distinguish between your tribe and another tribe by whatever means, including colour of skin, religion or any other marker of difference is natural when the PURPLE vMEME is dominanting the selfplex. You might call a particular form of demarcation – ie: by colour of skin – ‘racism’ and declare it illegal but the fact is that it is natural to differentiate your tribe from others. Racism per se is not the problem; it is the need to differentiate between who you belong to and who you don’t.
Paul Shaw & Yuwa Wong (1989) propose that the mechanisms that promote suspicion and fear of those not-of-our-tribe would have been favoured by the processes of natural selection. David Sloan Wilson (1975) explains that such fears and suspicions would be adaptive as they would enable ‘our tribe’ to avoid or at least defend themselves from attack by the strangers’ tribe. Wilson writes that xenophobia has been documented in “virtually every group of animals displaying higher forms of social organisation”. If we work from an Evolutionary Psychology angle, then it is clear that PURPLE’ s drive to find safety-in-belonging is underpinned by BEIGE’s survival motif.
The biological workings of this suspicion and/or fear of difference have been demonstrated on a number of occasions in recent years – most notably by William Cunningham et al (2004). Through the use of fMRI scans, they found increased activity in the amygdala when white Americans went from seeing photos of white American faces to photos of black American faces. The amygdala can be loosely described as the emotional centre of the brain and is particularly tuned to sense threat. Hence, it seems our biology is adapted to see difference as threatening.
If differentiation is adaptive and natural – and sometimes manifested as racism – the challenge then is to find ways of managing the demarcation between the tribes in ways which benefit society as a whole and meet the needs of all as far as possible. That there is a distinct possibility of mediating this differentiation comes from the work of Elizabeth Phelps et al (2000) who found that elevated amygdala activity was significantly greater in whites viewing photos of black faces if they already held negative attitudes towards blacks. In other words, while there may be natural drivers to differentiate racially (tribally), there are cognitive and social factors influencing the degree of differentiation. Memes about ‘others’ become schemas and mediate (increase or decrease) the adaptive response of fear produced by that differentiation.
And this is the kind of answer I gave to my A-Level classes…who seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.
Why then the fuss about racism?
So why isn’t it obvious to everyone that it’s not really racism but tribalism that is the problem?
Here we have to look at the Gravesian sixth vMEME, GREEN – the Aesthetic level in Maslow’s (revised 1970; 1971) Hierarchy.
GREEN is the great equaliser. Its way of thinking is to see the worth of everybody and to treat them as equal. Historically, there was a great explosion of GREEN thinking in the 1960s – at its zenith in the hippie movements. Feminism, support for disabled people, equality for gay men and lesbians and, of course, anti-racism are all products of the GREEN way of thinking. The very concept of social comparison – my tribe is better than yours – is anathema to GREEN.
GREEN is a much more complex way of thinking than PURPLE; but, in its enthusiasm for egalitarianism, it tends to ride roughshod over PURPLE’s concerns for tribal safety. While it’s something of a rough and ready measure, this helps to explain why the intellectualised leaders of the Labour Party, often driven by GREEN in their thinking in these things, have so often been out of touch culturally with the PURPLE tribalism of a great many of the (traditional white) working class they ostensibly represent when it comes to the issue of race.
Thus, GREEN uses the BLUE vMEME to enforce its egalitarian ethos via legislation in as many areas of discrimination as it can. (Thank goodness that way of thinking is at last tackling ageism!)
Thus, GREEN’s values don’t allow it to see the tribal concerns: quite simply everyone is equal – whatever your colour, creed or nationality and we should all help each other to get the best out of life. Yet these values are simply mysterious and unfathomable to the less complex PURPLE way of thinking.
Racism, like homophobia, simply cannot be countenanced by GREEN’s egalitarian way of thinking; yet both racism and homophobia are endemic in many working class communities where PURPLE thinking tends to dominate. Quite simply: they’re not like us so they can’t be part of our tribe. Often the more deprived the community, the more extreme the racism and/or homophobia.
GREEN is determined to stamp out racism (and homophobia) because both state that people are not equal. (My tribe is superior to yours.) Yet it is fighting something which is natural at the PURPLE level of thinking.
Tribalism and competition
One of the ways Graves improved upon Maslow’s model was to link the emergence of the motivating systems (vMEMES) to the ‘life conditions’ being experienced – either internally as in your biology or what is happening in your external environment. Graves originally used letter pairs to denote the life conditions (A-M) being matched by the motivating system (N-Z) for psychological health.
So what happens when the life conditions become adverse to the tribe? How does that affect the functioning of the motivating systems? Muzafer Sherif et al’s Robber’s Cave study (1954/1961), in which 2 ‘tribes’ of young boys were artificially created by categorisation and identification – ‘Rattlers’ vs ‘Eagles – and then set against each other in competition, is probably the most infamous psychological study to look at such effects. When placed in competition for real resources, the already-nascent and marginally violent hostility between the 2 groups increased significantly. (William Golding reputedly took his inspiration for his acclaimed 1954 novel ‘LORD OF THE FLIES’ from Sherif.)
It was from Robber’s Cave that Sherif developed Realistic Conflict Theory – though Donald Campbell (1965) was the first one to use that term for the theory
When tribes are set against each other in competition, for resources especially, then you can reasonably expect the in-group/out-group effect to magnify. As the life conditions become more difficult, the threat to the welfare of the tribe consolidates the tribe’s sense of singular identity and hostility towards other competing tribes. Marilyn Brewer & Donald Campbell (1976), in their famous study of East African tribes, demonstrated clearly a strong positive correlation between the degree of competition for vital resources and the level of prejudice and discrimination experienced – eg: the closer another tribe was to a waterhole on which your tribe depended, the more animosity your tribe felt towards the other one.
PURPLE-driven tensions and frustrations, produced by threatening the safety of the tribe, are about as low on the Spiral and as fundamental as you can get!
One critical issue that bedevilled efforts at regeneration and developing healthy communities in the latter half of the 20th Century was that policy-makers designed ‘solutions’ based on their values – often related to the BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN vMEMES – rather than those of the people the ‘solutions’ were meant for, particularly where the ‘problems’ were on large council estates or in inner city ghettos. While one must always be wary of generalisations, it is relatively safe to say PURPLE and RED tend to dominate in traditional white working class and ‘closed’ ethnic minority communities far more than BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN. Thus, the ‘solutions’, designed from a different value set, tended to have little appeal to the people they were supposedly designed for. Thus, successive governments poured huge amounts of money into community regeneration and cross-community integration efforts that made little difference.
These failures were mostly due to a values mismatch between what’s important to PURPLE and RED and what’s important to BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN.
A simple illustration of the complexity of these mismatches, highly relevant to this discussion, is that it’s the nature of PURPLE to believe ‘village gossip’ rather than official bulletins. Thus, the Government can put out all the information it wants about fair distribution of resources; but, if ‘Alf’ at the pub says “the Pakis get more benefits than us whites”, it will be Alf who is believed rather than the Government. In the same way many in the poorer/less-educated Muslim communities will believe the radical imam ranting about ‘institutional Islamophobia’ rather than the Equality & Human Rights Commission reports on success in tackling racism.
Managing Tribal Competition
To be sure of avoiding significant racially-motivated clashes, policy-makers need to adopt MeshWORK approaches, preferably using the 4Q/8L framework created by Don Beck (2000b, 2002b) from the work of Ken Wilber. This will enable them to look at the health of each vMEME at a cultural level (Bottom Left) in a given locale as well as considering the impact of key individuals (Top Left). This analysis will enable policy-makers to prioritise appropriate resources (Bottom Right) to tackle vMEMETIC issues. A Maslowian principle, reflected in the Gravesian approach, is that, when lower levels get into trouble, attention needs to switch from the higher levels to resolve the lower level issues – and the lower down the Hierarchy/Spiral the more fundamental the needs are and the more troublesome the problems will be.
Thankfully, the Robber’s Cave study shows us a way forward in managing tribalism. Sherif et al cooled tensions and minimised conflict between the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Rattlers’ by giving them challenges of such a critical nature and in such a way that the two groups came to realise that only by working together could they overcome the challenges. This idea has been developed by Samuel Gaertner et al in their Common In-Group Identity Model (1993). Gaertner et al’s proposal is that, by creating a common threat, it is possible to bring together competing identities. Eg: gangs of Liverpool and Manchester United fans, who would normally battle each other on the slightest perceived provocation, will roar their support together as ‘Englishmen’ when England play Scotland.
Of course, any attempt to create a ‘common identity’ will need to be carefully managed and the memes developed which facilitate the concept of working together as the best – or, even, only – way of overcoming the challenges faced by all the relevant tribes. One way of doing this could be for, say, a local authority to convene a ‘gathering of the tribes’ on its patch, where representatives (‘elders’) of each tribe come together to discuss common problems, share ideas and formulate ways of working together. What would it do for community relations if representatives of a white working class community were able to openly ‘borrow’ successful tactics from a Pakistani group and a Bangladeshi group used ideas given them by Poles…?
The fundamental principle for any such gathering would, of course, need to be the recognition and acceptance of difference between the tribes…. It has to be OK for one tribe to have brown skin and a tradition for their women to wear the hijab headscarf…just as it has to be OK for the men of another tribe to drink large quantities of beer and display a preference for crude tattoos such as ‘Mum’.
Interestingly recent research by Eva Telzer et al (2012) al has shown that amygdala activity decreases in proportion to the amount of peer diversity one experiences. See the fMRI scan below which shows the fear reaction of whites to black (African-American) faces having a negative correlation to the amount of racial/ethnic diversity amongst their peers. In other words, experience of other races, cultures and ethnic groups tends to reduce fear of them.
A personal annecdote: in September 2009 I had an in-depth discussion with Carolyn Wilkins, Assistant Chief Executive of Oldham Council. At the time Oldham, like so many towns and cities in the old manufacturing North of England, was struggling with racial/ethnic tensions exacerbated by the recession. Yet, according to Wilkins, where whites and Asians were forced by simple demographics to live as neighbours ‘cheek by jowl’, that was where there was markedly the least tension. In other words, the tribes, via proximity, had become familiar with each other and that had dispelled much of the fear.
This is an application of Contact Theory, developed separately by the sociologist Robin M Williams and the psychologist Gordon Allport (1954). Miles Hewstone (reported by BBC News’ David Edmonds, 2015) describes a Contact initiative begun in 2010: “They took two pre-existing schools, Breeze Hill and Counthill, one of which was almost entirely white British, the other was almost entirely Asian British, and said, ‘We’ll take this pint of milk, we’ll take this pint of Guinness and we’ll pour them into a new quart pot [Waterhead Academy].’ What is interesting is that the data are going the way we would have hoped – slowly but gradually. There is an indication that the social networks of the Asian students and the white British students are becoming more mixed.”
Thus, it seems that exposure to difference in a safe manner – ie: meeting the neighbours who have some different customs to you – eg: having Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan as the primary festival rather than Christmas – but then realising you share many key values – eg: having good education for your kids – lessens fear of relative difference. Fred MacDonald (1992) argues exaggerating negative stereotypes about out-groups is adaptive because the overperception of threat is less costly than underperception – so the overperception needs to be reduced by a more accurate perception of the ‘others’.
A focus on difference, as described by MacDonald, seems to lock PURPLE into a xenophobic malaise; acknowledging minor differences in a context of majorly-shared values appears to liberate PURPLE to fulfil its basic needs and allow development up the Spiral.
We aren’t all the same!
GREEN’s conceit that there aren’t differences really and that we are all the same needs to be replaced with increasing acceptance of diversity. And, while clearly, aggressive discrimination against another tribe has to be deterred, it also has to be accepted that one tribe will tend to be prejudiced against another unless the overperception of threat that comes from ignorance of the other tribe is reduced through familiarity.
Very close proximity and working together for the common good are ways of reducing the overperception. So, is education, both formal and informal. The memes children are exposed to have a major influence on PURPLE’s response to ‘other’s as characterised by amygdala activity. Another interesting finding from the Telzer et al study is that white children only start to develop increased amygdala activity when presented with black faces at around 14. While racial awareness and preferences have been found in children as young as preschoolers by the likes of Beth Kurtz-Costes et al (2011), it would appear from Telzer et al’s sample, that differentiation may not be a fear issue until puberty. So there is a real opportunity to work with younger children and limit the tendency to fear differentiation.
This means policy-makers accepting the unpalatable truth that racism (as a manifestation of tribalism) is natural to PURPLE thinking. Legislation may drive it underground and education may help some people move on to more complex ways of thinking…but, basically, prejudice against those ‘not of our tribe’ is fundamental to our belonging to our tribe (in-group) unless we have reason for it not to be. Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1951, p406) notes: “Some of the trends which are connected with ethnocentrism are thus natural stages of development which have to be overcome if maturity is to be reached.” The essential Maslowian principle is that, only when we are safe, can we move on to higher ways of thinking. So, to use Gaertner et al’s model and the work of Telzer et al, we need issues that mean safety can only be guaranteed by the tribes working together and becoming comfortable with each other.
It can only be a matter of time before some racist uses a defence in court of racism being natural at the PURPLE level of thinking, along with research such as that Cunningham et al, to insist that antagonism towards racial difference is biologically determined. We need to understand that, at that level, this is not inaccurate. However, the Gravesian approach and the work of Telzer et al shows us that this natural differentiation can be mediated and reduced through familiarity, education and maturation.
To answer the question, then: is racism natural…? The answer seems to be that tribalism, which can be acted out in the form of racism, is indeed a natural way of being for people whose thinking is dominated by PURPLE in their selfplex and, thus, are likely to overperceive the threat from somebody different from their tribe. However, the degree to which tribalism is acted out in unhealthy forms such as racism can mediated by social and cognitive factors. Critical to this process are familiarity with other tribes and a memetic focus on the common good. The more we can expose our children to such positive memes, the less they are likely to be frightened of ‘others’ as they grow up.