There Is No Racial Inequality in How We Learn Prejudice

Racism and prejudice are issues that are at the forefront of social concern today. Ethnic differences are causing riots, uprisings, and loss of life in nations throughout the world, including our own. Classic conditioning is a theory that suggests that individuals learn racism and prejudice through exposure to events by either experiencing them personally or observing them. Once a perspective is formed, it can be reinforced through continual verbal, visual, or actual cues. For instance, a person who has a fearful encounter with someone from another race may later see others exhibit fear, thus reinforcing their opinion and prejudice of that race. Likewise, this effect can be reversed if this same person goes on to experience positive situations with people of the other race. Either way, discrimination and prejudice are learned at a very young age and unless it is reversed, can lead to significant stress and anxiety. People who are discriminated against based on their religion, race, or sexual preference often face obstacles in many areas of their lives. Finding a career, a job, or school can be a challenging experience for people who are faced with prejudice and discrimination.

To identify how different ethnic groups learn racism and how it is perceived across different races, David Rollock, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University, recently conducted a study involving participants who were African American, White, Asian, and Hispanic. The 282 participants ranged in age from 17 to 61 years old and responded to a questionnaire that asked them about their experiences with prejudice. They were instructed to report their emotional responses to various interracial encounters, positive and negative.

Rollock discovered that the White participants had the strongest negative emotions as a result of bad interracial experiences, while other races experienced lower levels of negativity. The findings also showed that Whites reported fear as the most common response to negative interracial experiences, regardless of whether they were verbal, observed, or physically experienced. Whites and African Americans had similar levels of anxiety, but these levels were much lower than levels found in the Asian and Hispanic participants.

Although all the participants exhibited anger as a result of interracial experiences, it was minimal. Rollock also found that some of the participants had positive interracial experiences that decreased their prejudice, but the effect was minimal. Rollock added, “Interestingly, people from different ethnic and sex groups did not appear to ‘learn’ their adverse race-elicited emotions in different ways, suggesting that strategies that build or reduce adverse race-elicited emotion for members of one group should be similarly effective with other groups.” This finding could help clinicians who are dealing with victims and perpetrators of racial intolerance. By understanding that the mechanism that leads to prejudice and racism is similar across all races, mental health professionals should be able to help most people overcome these obstacles, regardless of their ethnicity.

Conger, A. J., Dygdon, J. A., Rollock, D. (2012). Conditioned emotional responses in racial prejudice. Ethnic & Racial Studies 35.2, 298-319.

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  • Francis

    August 25th, 2021 at 3:13 PM

    I find this article helpful in increasing my ‘knowledge bank’ of this topic. As a teacher, I’ve also taught my student, mostly adult ESL students in Bronx, that understanding how the Pavlovian Response Conditioning Theory works is also a helpful insight to racism and prejudice. Can you help me by referring other research on this topic my way to my email address:

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