Racism, Prejudice, and Implicit/Explicit Beliefs

Diagram of socially acceptable identities and deviant identities that are the target of prejudice

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 store, 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 group 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. This same learning can lead to the development of prejudice.


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. It’s the primary socialization as kids that gets really deeply ingrained, though.

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 and not a target for prejudice.

Deviant identities

Mentally ill, on the other hand, is an identity that society has deemed to be deviant, which leads to stigma, a concept that encompasses stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. 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 – our Us. 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.

Implicit beliefs cause 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 those bits and pieces 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.

Social justice and equality - graphic of Earth surrounded by diverse children

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

25 thoughts on “Racism, Prejudice, and Implicit/Explicit Beliefs”

  1. Really enjoyed this post Ashley – thank you explaining the difference between implicit and explicit beliefs. Regarding racism and other ingrained stereotypes I remember someone on a podcast saying that there is no such thing as “not racist” – he said you either being racist or anti racist. No one is not racist. That always stuck with me

    1. Adult racist sentiments are often cemented by a misguided yet strong sense of entitlement, perhaps also acquired from one’s environment. One means of proactively preventing this social/societal problem may be by allowing young children to become accustomed to other races in a harmoniously positive manner.

      The first step towards changing irrationally biased thinking may be the beholder’s awareness of it and its origin. Plus, the early years are typically the best time to instill and even solidify positive social-interaction skills/traits into a very young brain. An always good trait/skill to acquire and maintain for life is interracial harmonization.

      Irrational racist sentiment can be handed down generation to generation. If it’s deliberate, it’s something I strongly feel amounts to a form of child abuse: to rear one’s impressionably very young children in an environment of overt bigotry — especially against other races and sub-racial groups, i.e. ethnicities. Not only does it fail to prepare children for the reality of an increasingly racial/ethically diverse and populous society, but, even worse, it makes it so much less likely those children will be emotionally content or (preferably) harmonious with their multicultural/-racial environment. Children reared into adolescents and, eventually, young adults with such bigotry can often be angry yet not fully realize at precisely what. Ironically, it can make life so much harder for their own children.

  2. Stereotyping plays a huge role in my life, similar to your example with the female plumber and surgeon. I fix aircraft and work in a male-dominated workplace. Fortunately, after 4 years, I’ve proven my competence to my coworkers, and no one questions whether I have the skills to do a certain job. But that doesn’t stop me from hearing gender stereotyping all the time at work and wondering how untrue opinions get formed. One coworker once asked me why women won’t make phone calls, simply because his wife makes him call places for her. My answer was simply “I don’t know, I don’t know any women who do that.” Haha. I hope he learned something when I said that.

    1. It’s strange how easy people will generalize things like that. I can definitely see that being a challenging area to work in and deal with having to prove yourself at the start.

      1. Yeah, it definitely got better over time. I still get treated like a ticking time bomb unnecessarily sometimes, but I can’t expect people to change their entire view of women because of me.

  3. Nick Pipitone

    Good post, Ashley. It reminds me of how I think of my own mental illness and identity surrounding it. I do think of myself as a “mentally-ill” person, or a person who has struggled with mental health issues. In a way, this belief has led to some relief for me, because I’m not trying to fight my symptoms as much anymore. Instead, I can accept that I have some limitations and make the best of it.

    At the same time, being a “mentally-ill” person is just one of many identities I have – I’m also a son, a brother, a writer, a blogger, a worker, a Philadelphia resident, etc etc. So, not everything has to revolve around my bipolar disorder or diagnosis and struggles.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Your examples make the topic relatable. This meets our need for learning and shared understanding.

    In organizations, we wonder if the higher up the chain of command, the more detrimental implicit bias is and the more valuable explicit anti-racism is. Since, in theory, hiring, evaluation, and firing don’t have to be open-the-door instant reactions, the explicit beliefs have a chance to prevail. This probably takes self-awareness and bravery because organizations have their own implicit and explicit cultures, too.

    And organization’s explicit rules don’t automatically undo individually held implicit or explicit biases or values.

    As Bruce Hornsby sang:
    “well, they passed a law in ’64
    To give those who ain’t got a little more
    But it only goes so far
    Because the law don’t change another’s mind
    When all it sees at the hiring time
    Is the line on the color bar”

    1. I think it also sets an important example if those at the top of organizational hierarchies are able to have the vulnerability to admit that they need to do their own work around that just as much as the organization does.

    1. I would think so. Mark Zuckerberg seems more libertarian-leaning than anything. And I doubt it’s possible to be as rich as Jeff Bezos and be left-leaning in a fiscal sense, even if he’s socially liberal.

  5. Thanks for the post Ashley!
    My traveling around Canada and America meeting people from all walks, cultures of life gave me a better understanding of some things in life.
    Entertainment was a big factor in supplanting implicit beliefs about many different people’s roles in life. The “big lie” told to many men was, you have to be a big boy and big boys don’t cry! Many of us men have been a seething pot of pent up emotions that are ready to erupt in a very volatile way.

  6. In June of last year, a disturbing form of schadenfreude was front and center in the news: Revealed was that accusations were under investigation by our provincial government that some British Columbia emergency room doctors and nurses were playing games with their peers in which they would guess heavily intoxicated patients’ “blood alcohol level without going over” (likely an allusion to the famous Price Is Right TV game show rule involving estimating a product’s price). Particularly troubling was the accusation that most of those ER ‘games’ involved the racist stereotyping of Indigenous walk-in patients.

    The apparent scandal immediately brought to mind a book passage explaining how such discriminatory conduct towards patients, however inappropriate, unjust and seemingly cruel, can be the health professionals’ means of psychologically coping with the great trauma they’re frequently surrounded by and treat. Essentially, by subtly blaming the patients for their own suffering — e.g. making fun out of frequent ER patients by playing games guessing their blood alcohol levels — somehow it translates into their suffering somehow being deserved.

    Regardless, considering their profession, immense training/education and the poorest of souls they treat, these to me are among the least excusable forms of shameful pleasure.

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