Dovidio Speaks on Psychology of Racism

Victoria Cubera

Last Friday, former Colgate professor, Chair of the Psychology Department, and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Jack Dovidio returned to campus to deliver a lecture on “Racism Among the Well-Intentioned.”

Currently employed at the University of Connecticut, Dovidio said he was glad to revisit Colgate, where he spent 27 years.

“Colgate really is my home,” he said.

Warmly received by a crowd filling Golden Auditorium almost to capacity, Dovidio began his lecture with a brief re-cap of his research perspectives through the years.

He spent his first 27 years of research studying the attitudes of white people toward people of color, then changed the predominant focus to the views people of color had of white people. Eventually, he merged both research angles into a project examining actual racial interactions instead of just racial perceptions.

Professor Dovidio used Colgate as a prime example of a college working to increase the number of students and faculty of color on campus.

However, he went on to say that focusing on a number neglects the actual experience of the people. He presented a variety of tables and graphs to document substantial changes in white attitudes toward other races through the years. Several of the graphs involved statistical data from Colgate students.

Although surveying samples have shown a significant decrease in expressions of blatant racism, Dovidio warned that a racial divide, including higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment and poverty for people of color, indicates that an equilibrium between the races has yet to be reached.

“Racial disparities persist,” Dovidio said. “Society reinforces old ideas, not new ideas.”

He described the factors contributing to bias as cognitive, motivational and socio-cultural. Dovidio gave examples of each, listing social categorization, social dominance and cultural stereotypes as reasons behind racial tension.

He said that stereotyping occurs spontaneously, usually based on race and sex. Bias or prejudice can occur without conscious motivation as people naturally resist the progress of other social groups, and devalue the people in groups different from their own.

Dovidio introduced the concept of modern racism, saying that most people believe they are not racist but have these unconscious feelings and beliefs. Though they try to reject the feelings, the bias persists, resulting in psychological tension.

Modern racists are exposed in subtle ways, Dovidio explained. Only in cases where appropriate behavior is not clearly defined will they act in a perceived discriminatory manner. To the modern racist, however, his or her behavior can be justified on a nonracial basis.

For an example, Dovidio described a black applicant on a job hunt. The managers all had differing criteria that he did not fit, but to the applicant race explains the lack of hiring. Dovidio said this demonstrated logic, not paranoia, and that whites tend not to see racism.

“We practice avoiding seeing racism and seeing ourselves as racist,” he said. “The same interaction from the two perspectives is entirely different.”

He expanded upon the differences between explicit and implicit racial attitudes. The blatant racist demonstrates conscious and deliberate prejudice, verbally and in open behavior. The modern racist acts spontaneously and unconsciously. Normally, nonverbal behaviors such as body language, eye contact or rate of blinking serve as visual cues for others to interpret as dislike and aversion.

Dovidio stated that the major goal of whites in interracial interactions is to be liked. They want to talk about common ground between the two races and to build ties.

From the black perspective, though, the goal is to be respected. To accomplish this, discussion must be of differences and disparities in power, so that they can be altered.

The only way to obtain change, Dovidio said, is to confront the situations.

“In order to get change, you must convince people that what they’re doing is wrong,” Dovidio said. “As long as Americans ignore the problem, it won’t go away. For Colgate to change, and America to change, we’re going to have to have a radical transformation in the way we do things.”