Last week I reviewed White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. There were some important concepts that she alluded to but didn’t clearly explain, so I decided to do a post, from a social constructionist viewpoint, about how stereotypes and prejudice develop, and why the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs is important.
Our societies create categories based on different social roles. These allow us to understand what to expect when interacting with someone in a given role. This is important for a smoothly functioning society. If I go into a grocery story, what I expect from staff at the deli counter is not going to be the same as what I expect from cashiers, other shoppers in the store, or the gr0u9p of firefighters, who may have to drop their shopping baskets and boot it because they have to respond to a call. None of this knowledge is inherent; we have to learn it.
We start gaining knowledge in early childhood about these and many other social roles. Primary socialization occurs during childhood and is shaped by our parents, along with everything else we’re exposed to. Secondary socialization occurs later on and broadens the knowledge of different social roles, but it’s the primary socialization as kids that gets really deeply ingrained.
When we learn about social categories, we learn what it means to be “Us” and “Not Us,” in the sense of who does and does not belong in our in-groups. We recognize social differences, whether we consciously choose to or not. Differences aren’t necessarily a bad thing; it depends on how relevant society has deemed those differences to be. We also learn a sense of which certain categories are socially acceptable and which are deviant/Other. For a cashier working at a grocery store, health care workers would fall into a Not Us category in terms of occupational role identity, but that category is still very much within the realm of social acceptability.
Mentally ill, on the other hand, is an identity that society has deemed to be deviant, which leads to stigma. When someone has a deviant, stigmatized identity, others will tend to assume that particular identity characterizes the whole person. People with socially acceptable identities, on the other hand, are recognized as belonging to multiple different social categories based on the different roles they play and the identities that go along with those roles.
For those of us with mental illness who choose to identify with that group, it becomes our in-group, i.e. our Us, and we can then help to socialize new members into that group.
Learning stereotypes is part of our socialization, and they serve as a way to keep track of different social categories. They’re not necessarily harmful; it depends on how rigidly they’re applied and how open we are to recognizing that it’s not a big deal if individuals don’t fit the stereotype for their social group.
If you’ve called for a plumber and a woman shows up at your door, you might be momentarily surprised, because your stereotype of a plumber probably involves a male (perhaps with butt crack on display). Depending on how flexible you are and what other beliefs you have about gender differences, you may quickly shrug it off, or you may start to have doubts about her competence. You may not even consciously recognize that’s why you question her competence.
Stereotyping also shows up in this riddle you’ve probably heard. A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son! So, who’s the surgeon?
Implicit vs. explicit beliefs
That’s where implicit and explicit beliefs come into play. Explicit beliefs are conscious and voluntarily chosen. Implicit beliefs are unconscious and deeply ingrained, largely through the primary socialization process. Stereotypes are often held as implicit beliefs. Our implicit and explicit beliefs don’t always agree with each other. I may have feminist explicit beliefs but still have a brief flash of surprise when I see a female plumber, because that stereotype was held implicitly.
Where this gets to be a problem is that implicit beliefs can trigger an emotional reaction before our explicit beliefs even become mentally available. If the police are dealing with a mentally ill or BIPOC individual, implicitly held stereotypes about those groups being a greater risk for violence become immediately available in the officer’s mind, and they may well trigger a response before explicit knowledge to the contrary even kicks in. That can get people shot. That police officer may even hold anti-racist explicit beliefs, but they were not available quickly enough and therefore couldn’t prevent that trigger pull.
What can we do?
Explicit beliefs can be informed by what we read about, but changing implicit beliefs takes something more along the lines of exposure therapy for anxiety. Beliefs start to change when we repeatedly have contact with people/situations that disconfirm stereotypes.
We live in a society that’s prejudiced towards all kinds of people, creating degrees of privilege and disadvantage based on race, gender, socioeconomic class, ability, sexuality, and many other factors. Since we’re all socialized into that society, a lot of us are carrying around pieces of that implicitly, whether or not it agrees with our explicit beliefs. It’s what causes that instant flash of an initial reaction when you open your front door and see someone different from what you expect. It’s changeable, but the first step is recognizing that we’re all carrying around bits of nonsense that we’ve been socialized with. It doesn’t make us bad people, but it also doesn’t make discriminatory behaviour okay.
To bring it back to White Fragility, I’m not sure it accomplishes much to say everyone is racist, but we’ve probably all been socialized to have bits of racism and our prejudice stuck somewhere in our implicit beliefs, the nature of which are shaped by the cultures and subcultures in which we were socialized. It’s good to have explicit anti-racist beliefs and other anti-discriminatory beliefs, but it’s worth recognizing that your initial open-the-door reaction might not match that. Maybe it’s time to start opening the door a little more often.