The Psychological Foundations of Racism and Religious Prejudice

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Every year in September, the United Nations commemorates United Nations Peace Day. This year’s theme was “End Racism. building peace”.

The United Nations invites us to work for a world free from racism and racial discrimination; a world where compassion and empathy prevail over mistrust and hatred – a world we can truly be proud of.

Racism in its most basic sense is the manifestation of a person’s tendency to value an individual’s race – one race, culture or religion as superior to another.

Twenty percent of Australians said they had experienced discrimination on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion. Most people reject overtly racist attitudes, but the underlying attitudes that underlie discrimination and intolerance are still present in many people.

Psychological foundations
Racist beliefs can develop early in a person’s life and take deep root in their mind. People learn negative stereotypes about other races, ethnicities, or religions as children. These lessons are essential to a child’s development because they help them form a sense of identity – their notions of themselves and others.

Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, their origin or their religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Much of contemporary racism has been driven by a sense of loss. Those who may have previously felt more powerful or in control now feel like they have lost their place and they react with anger.

Racism is also born of fear and anxiety. The human ego can feel vulnerable and threatened by what people are not used to. Individual fear can extend to their culture and community. This is a threat that has consistently run through the historical fabric of racism – the fear that some other represents a danger to a national identity or a way of life.

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To deal with this vulnerability and fear, people cling to their worldview as a way to protect themselves and the world they are used to. These worldviews can be inappropriate and harmful to others and to themselves.

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