Unconscious Racism

Understanding how cultural conditioning shapes racial bias can help us change.


 “We are living in a racism pandemic… The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.”  

-Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association. May 29, 2020


As a White American, I do not want to admit that I am racist. Or ever could be. Very few of us do. It is a negative word, full of historical pain, systematic maltreatment, and self-indulgent justification of discriminatory thoughts, behaviors, and institutional practices. Yet, the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, along with myriad other examples of racist practices in law enforcement, sparked a movement of people asking themselves critical questions about race. Questions like, “Why are African Americans so over-represented in prison settings? Why is it offensive to say “All Lives Matter” instead of “Black Lives Matter”? Am I racist and don’t even know it?

Dyana Wing – Upsplash

Consciously, I do not believe in racial injustice. I do not believe that race, defined as the social categorization of people based on visible physical appearance characteristics, has any bearing on a person’s value. I do not believe that a person has more or less worth because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, weight, ability, or any other demographic variable. Unconsciously, however, I have been culturally conditioned to believe something different.

Racial and Ethnic Socialization and Conditioning
Understanding cultural conditioning can help us not only to see how we developed racial biases but also to help us change by bringing them into our conscious awareness. As humans, we are all raised in a cultural context. We don’t choose it—we are born into it. From childhood on, we look around and start learning what is valuable about ourselves and those around us. As such, our cultural environment(s) teach us the traits and characteristics of people that are deemed more desirable and less desirable largely based on who has the most power. We learn these cultural values whether we are consciously aware of it or not. This process of learning about and accepting cultural values through direct (explicit) and indirect (implicit) messages is generally referred to as cultural conditioning. As applied to race, it is also often referred to as racial and ethnic socialization (RES).

At the most basic level, racism is believing that one’s racial group is superior to other groups; and, the power to take action against the group(s) deemed inferior (Jones, 1997). Historically, mainstream American culture teaches us that being White is better than being non-White. Currently, we continue to see evidence of racial bias and discrimination in all areas of life, from law enforcement to employment practices to attitudes that drive political opinion. If you were raised in the United States (and many other Western cultures), you learned that being White is better than being non-White—even if you were not consciously aware that you were learning it—or—consciously believe it is false. You were conditioned to believe it. And, like all ism’s of domination, if you are in a position of power (in this case, you are White), you will struggle to see that race matters to the lived experiences of people because it will be mostly invisible to you. If you are a person of color, it is likely that you also internalized some of these messages and may apply them to yourself and those around you in ways that are difficult to see.

Internalization of cultural norms and values is particularly problematic with regard to racism because even if we consciously do not believe racist ideology is true, we are all likely to have internalized some of it. Despite that fact, most of us strongly deny that we could hold racist beliefs or engage in racist behavior, which destroys our ability to admit the truth and change.

Until we can see the unconscious and deceptive realities of living in a culture historically mired in racism that continues to perpetuate racist beliefs in direct and indirect ways, we can’t change them. So, the goal is to unearth what we learned and think about its validity. We then use that information to change.

Confronting Racist Conditioning
To confront racism in ourselves and continue positive cultural change, our biggest challenge is to see it. To become honest about the cultural, political, historical, and organizational realities we live in and to see how those realities affected our development and the development of those around us. Psychology offers us many important tools on this journey.

  1. Self-Awareness and Exploration

The most important place to start fighting racism is to explore your own multicultural make-up and examine how it influenced your beliefs, behaviors, and values around race. We are all cultural beings who hold beliefs that will influence our interactions with individuals who are different from us on any number of multicultural dimensions, including culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age and socio-economic status. To be a culturally-informed person, we must strive to be aware of what we bring to the table. What did you learn about race growing up? From whom? Were there conflicting messages from different cultural subgroups or individuals in your life? What did you do with that information? How did it shape you? Do you believe people of color when they describe experiences of discrimination? Do you think racist thoughts? Do you shy away from racial conversations because they are too emotionally charged?

  1. Learn About Race

As we explore our own personal experiences around race, we also must become more educated. Learn about the sociopolitical system in the United States and how cultural realities influence individual development and treatment. For example, understand the operation and impact of oppression on human development (racism, classism, sexism, homophobism). From a psychological perspective, a large body of theoretically-grounded and empirically-supported research exists on the impact of racism on mental health. For example, research on experiences with racial discrimination (including environmental racism) explores how it affects identity and mental health while also providing information on resiliency factors that combat internalization of negative cultural messages in people of color as they cope with living in a racist society. Models of racial identity formation help us understand the process and experience of identifying with a racial group in people of color and Whites. Information on stereotype threat helps us understand how activating a negative racial stereotype affects behavioral responses and emotional reactions. Information on acculturation helps us understand how people navigate differences in cultural values and its impact on health. Research on racially-salient appearance features help us understand how ideals and values of beauty influence body image and eating pathology in people of color.

  1. Do Something Differently

As we learn about ourselves and current cultural realities, we have to challenge ourselves and those around us to change. Vote. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues about race and how it affects their lives. Ask questions. Challenge your thoughts and behaviors when you notice you are acting in a discriminatory way. Peacefully protest when you see injustice. Acknowledge ways that you benefit from unearned cultural power and privilege in your life. Contact your political leaders. Read about the history of racism in the United States. Mentor a child. Do something in a conscious, intentional effort to acknowledge racial inequity and do something about it.

The Naked Truth is This:
Racism continues to have incredibly negative consequences on the psychological, physical, and spiritual health of the oppressed. When a cultural reality is etiologically tied to illness, I as a psychologist and we as human beings have a responsibility to fight it.  Although changing culture is a massive task, it starts with each of us being willing to dismantle systems of oppression and our role in maintaining them. It starts with honest self-examination and a willingness to see some ugly truths that need to change—in our own minds, community, country, and world.

Note of thanks: I have spent the majority of my career studying how sociocultural inequities influence mental health and illness: I would not be who or where I am today without the mentoring and friendship of some brilliant and inspiring people. A special thanks to the American Psychological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program for your role in my professional training and personal life.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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  1. Fran Laakman on June 17, 2020 at 5:54 am

    Thank you so much for your commitment to honesty and encouragement to delve into personal beliefs. I especially liked your article from a few years ago about opinions. It led me to this page and I definitely will sign up for your blog. As a retired English teacher, fact vs opinion, fantasy vs reality, and truth vs fiction have always been part of the themes in the literature, writing, and speeches/debates I taught my students. Thank you for your voice of sanity in this day and age.