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Ideas for Leaders #168

Conquering Racism by Taking Personal Responsibility

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Key Concept

Increased sensitivity to the problem of racism is not, it seems, being matched by a willingness to take personal responsibility for it. We tend to excuse our own prejudices by blaming them on cultural and social conditioning. If more progress is to be made in the fight against racism, we need to take a more rational approach — and acknowledge that the extent to which we endorse prejudices is within our control.

Idea Summary

Developing deeper awareness of our own prejudices is often cited as the solution to racism. Recent research, however, suggests it’s just the first step.

In a pilot study conducted at an American university, 75 per cent of white respondents acknowledged and were consciously aware of their own racial prejudices — and in a follow-up study, 60 per cent attributed their prejudices to ‘cultural socialisation’.
While it’s true that racial prejudice is strongly influenced by culture, further research showed that people’s motives for blaming external influences are complex, stemming from a biased desire to maintain a positive self-image rather than valid reasoning.

In their main study, the researchers divided 49 white American undergraduate students into two groups. One was primed to affirm their sense of self (by writing about a time when they’d lived up to their values) and the other to question their sense of self (by writing about a time when they’d let themselves down). Participants were then asked whether their racial prejudices were a product of the culture they lived in or a reflection of their own state of mind. Participants whose sense of self had been undermined by the initial priming were significantly more likely to blame their culture for their prejudices than participants who’d been primed to affirm their sense of self.

The researchers had hypothesised that for those who think racism unacceptable, it’s highly threatening to confront their own racist tendencies — and their research supported the theory. Rather than appear racist, we attribute our negative thoughts to culture, seeking comfort in the idea that they’re not our fault.

In some ways, of course, the findings are good news: they show that racial prejudice is now so stigmatised that people feel the need to distance themselves from it and attribute it to wider influences. On the other, hand, however, they suggest that progress remains at a formative stage. If people continue to blame their racial prejudices uncritically on culture, they’ll be less likely to take personal responsibility for changing their own attitudes.

Business Application

Diversity and inclusion programs need to:

  • Examine the underlying causes of ‘automatic prejudices’ and stereotyping carefully and encourage people to take personal responsibility for their own racism and reactions;
  • Include ‘hiring audits’ — to focus minds on the problem of racism and the need to play an active role in solving it; 
  • Avoid confusing awareness and ‘activism’: people who acknowledge their own prejudices may also excuse them — and therefore go on to discriminate against minority groups (albeit subconsciously);
  • Encourage people to question their own decisions and judgments about others and to take action if they uncover biases.
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Idea conceived

  • January 2013

Idea posted

  • July 2013

DOI number




This Idea is adapted from the article ‘Racial prejudice: “My Culture Made Me Do It’, authored by Business Digest and published in the March-April 2013 edition of Research@HEC.

The original was based on an interview with Eric Uhlmann in February 2013 and the article ‘My Culture Made Me Do It: Lay Theories of Responsibility for Automatic Prejudice’ by Eric Uhlmann and Brian A. Nosek (Social Psychology, Vol 43(2), 2012, 108-113).

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