On campus, racism exists on a spectrum

“Can anyone think of an application of cultural psychology in examining the results of an individual’s Brief Sensation-Seeking Scale score?”

My psychology professor admirably maintained a high level of energy as she projected her question, despite seeing the tired faces of the 200+ students barely keeping awake as the lecture period neared its end. Despite my own exhaustion as I completed my eighth hour of lecture for the day, I thought about the question. The Brief Sensation-Seeking Scale score predicts how likely a person is to seek exciting, new things, and to participate in high-thrill activities. Cultural psychology is the branch studying the ways in which our cultures shape us. As I formulated a potential answer, I heard a soft chuckle and a whisper, that even a week and a half later makes my blood boil: “Muslims are more violent because their religion tells them they should be.”

We are, unfortunately, a society of extremes. Our availability heuristic heavily influences our cognition. For example, when criticizing the opposing political side, Democrats can be quick to include all Republicans under the “alt-right” category, and Republicans are quick to see all liberals as the “alt-left”. The term “moderate” has come to be meaningless.

Similarly, we too easily divide society into two extreme categories: those who are racist, and those who are not. We tend to see the former as individuals who scream racial slurs in public and openly criticize immigrants for the sake of filling media minutes. On the other hand, we perceive those we have deemed “not racists” through idealistic, rose-tinted glasses as people who are accepting of all cultures and see everyone as an equal.

But if not a legitimate answer I could write down in my notes, the horrific words that escaped the lips of the group of young white men sitting in the row behind me gave me perspective. Their insensitivity shone a light on a kind of silent racism, which is only practiced behind closed doors and therefore unknown to anyone else. They introduced me to the racism spectrum, with a middle ground that is characterized by a facade of acceptance that we have been tricked into believing is reality. This is an array of people who perceive themselves as culturally accepting, but in reality foster an attitude arguably as devastating than that of individuals who shout racial slurs in public.

For the sake of simplifying this rather complicated issue and fitting this argument in my page limit, let’s use the analogy of the visible light spectrum to explain racism. If we define outwardly racist people as “violets,” then we can define those who are fully accepting of others as the “reds.” The topic of investigation is the range of blues, greens, yellows and oranges that fall in between the two extremes.

There are the men in my psychology lecture — the blues and greens — who speak ill of the backgrounds and cultures of their  “ethnic friend” (as they term them), but parade around with these same friends as if to say, “I’m hanging out with Sanjay and Osamah, I can’t be racist.” And we as a society have fallen into their trap. We applaud their behavior and use this mindset as a basis to label them as members of the latter group.

However, this spectrum contains individuals who are inadvertently racist, passing comments that reveal their almost innocent insensitivity — the yellows and oranges. These are the people who are quick to say, “Well in America, we say ____”, when an international friend uses a different term for an object. For example,

These are also some of the people who jump to the first #DefendDACA rally on campus because they believe President Donald Trump’s decision to end this Obama-administration program will lead to the deportation of their international friends — they fail to differentiate between international students and the individuals protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, viewing all of their “ethnic friends” as a homogeneous group (I could launch into a grand explanation of this difference, but to avoid exploring a tangent with no return, I recommend performing a Google search). We see their support for an important cause, and are blindsided to the flaws in their logic.

But one might ask, how are we supposed to distinguish between the violets, blues, yellows and reds? Unfortunately, we can’t. Doing this would inevitably result in yet another trap of abandoning all trust in humanity and automatically assuming that even reds are secretly blues. Not only would this further all the existing unrest around race relations in society, but it could also push us further away from the solution.

Instead, the solution is found within each individual person. We must ask ourselves if we have even unintentionally made a comment with racist undertones. We must ask ourselves when we have asked that an international student change her vocabulary so it is easier for us to comprehend, instead of making the effort to instead understand their terminology.

Not only are these “middle” people unaware of other cultures and facts, but they are also blindsided to their own ignorance. And ignorance of your own ignorance is only a temporary, fragile bliss.

Nithya Rajeev is a sophomore majoring in human biology. Her column,“The Spectrum,” runs every other Monday.

21 replies
  1. BoredHousewife
    BoredHousewife says:

    The author says: “this spectrum contains individuals who are inadvertently racist, passing comments that reveal their almost innocent insensitivity — the yellows and oranges. These are the people who are quick to say, “Well in America, we say ____”, when an international friend uses a different term for an object.”

    So I’ve been racist towards my British friends by telling them that we say “eraser”, not “rubber”, and “trunk” instead of “boot”? I feel so ashamed.

  2. Prisoner of Azkaban
    Prisoner of Azkaban says:

    Nithya, there have been 5 Islamic terror attacks in Europe in the last 2 days, are you completely sure that the guys sitting behind you are wrong? Do you know what’s happening in Sweden? I think you’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that the Koran really does specifically, repeatedly order that innocent people be harmed to spread Islam.

  3. John
    John says:

    Not accepting a culture is NOT equivalent to racism.

    I understand the sentiment of this article, and the author makes several good points about heuristics. However, it is important to note that criticizing a culture is not the equivalent of criticizing a race. Criticizing Islam for its flaws is not the same as criticizing people based exclusively on their skin tone. Any cultural practice should not be beyond scrutiny. Bad behavior is bad behavior. Violence promoted by Islam is bad behavior. By the same token, pedophiles protected by the Catholic Church is bad behavior. Criticism is entirely valid on both of these cultural institutions and should not be misconstrued as a criticism tied directly to race.

    • Don Harmon
      Don Harmon says:

      Open borders has become a relatively new, liberal concept. You view that conservatively, thinking it better that the US control its borders, as it has, for better or worse, since WW I.

      “Radical” means extreme liberal. You do not favor that, so again, you are thinking conservatively.

      Your thinking is conservative, and so, is it bad? No, not to me. To accept open borders and radical Islam as desirable, in my view, would be a nihilistic, unthinking wish for national self-destruction.

  4. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    I agree, Lunderful. Great comment. The few thousand KKK, American Nazis and White Supremacist cult members are a regrettable part of our population of 325 million. Yet their loud vitriol gains them great attention and much wailing over “widespread racism in our country.” Yes, our country has some, but some excitable people take the fringe mentioned above as representative of the country as a whole. Not the case, but as you wrote, their noise is loud. For some, that is enough.

    My original point below is that after hundreds of hours of the media, instructors, clergy and other people endlessly and repetitively lecturing about racism, a person who is not racist can get sick of the tiresome and insulting accusations. But if one mutters “enough, already!” then others may condemn that impatient person as a “racist.”

    • alpha1906
      alpha1906 says:

      Unless you don’t understand how white supremacy is one of the foundations of this country, and that the resultant systemic and individual racism affects people of color, then I guess one would get tired of hearing about racism…

      • Kizmet Paradigm
        Kizmet Paradigm says:


        • alpha1906
          alpha1906 says:

          You’re commenting in all caps. I think that’s enough for me to understand that you’re not equipped to have this discussion.

      • Don Harmon
        Don Harmon says:

        Correct. White supremacy, certainly as seen in the ugly, inhuman and evil institution of slavery, was one of the foundations of our country.. That ended more than 150 years ago. But yes, some people in our country unfortunately do have nasty racist attitudes, so unfair racial discrimination survives.

        But you missed my point. I agree that education on this evil can be very helpful and needs to be pursued diligently and for many years to come, if we are to solve the problem.

        My point is those who are not racist, who understand how racism viciously impacts people of color, and who understand the need for continuing education – can get impatient with a lesson already well learned but constantly repeated. At that point, it seems personally insulting and upsetting to hear “you are a racist and you need to do this and this and not that.”

        • alpha1906
          alpha1906 says:

          Unfortunately, you’re not understanding how white supremacy works. White supremacy, as the foundation, begets systemic and individual racism. So you have a pseudo science backed by racist ideas of the lack of humanity in non-whites. Slavery was simply public policy based on white supremacy, which is why when slavery was ended, the white supremacist public policy simply adapted with Black Codes and then Jim Crow segregation. Again, racism is the visible tumor to the white supremacy cancer. So while it is quite easy to believe that it’s individuals who are ‘evil’ or ‘racist,’ (or a subset of whiteness: rednecks, KKK, Nazis, Mississippians…anyone who fits the stereotype of a white racist…hence an obviously bad person) the reality is that all white Americans benefit from a white supremacist system that’s implemented institutionally and systemically.

          So for example, you have the FHA making loans for over 40 years to whites at a 98% clip, while denying the same loans to blacks at around the same rate. One group is able to build equity, stable neighborhoods, use rising property taxes to fund schools, while the other group rents, is prevented from integrating white areas through intimidation or redlining or block busting (which spurs white flight and the flight of real estate value) and eventually the accumulation of wealth. How white supremacy works is that whites think that getting an FHA loan is par for the course, and that their newly won middle class status was earned, while never noticing that the black group was prevented, even if they were on the same level, from attaining the same benefits. Where does racism come in? If you’ve come to believe that black are a series of negative stereotypes, then you can rationalize and justify their place in society, while rejecting the evidence that says discrimination helped one group and hurt another.

          The point is that most white Americans aren’t racist, but they’re not anti-racist either. They hold a middle group of non-racist, where they take no proactive action to recognize the systemic issues of white supremacy and racism, but instead rely upon individual morality as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not racism is a thing. To be called upon to deal with racism suddenly becomes a tiresome thing, as though dealing with actual racism isn’t the true problem. It’s a privilege that white Americans hold in that they came be as race averse as they’d like, while people of color wake up every day navigating a world where they fight white supremacy as a societal problem, while also tackling the individual racist realities, while also fighting to succeed like any other American.

          For students of color, dealing with campus racism is typically their first true understanding of how American society works. And it’s a hard reality. If you’d like to know more about campus racism, I just so happened to write a book on it: Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. It will open your eyes to what this young woman so eloquently recounted.

          • Don Harmon
            Don Harmon says:

            Thank you. Much better stated, much clearer! Your last two paragraphs are especially relevant, much more to the point. Generalities about any given white individual might not apply, because that person could be free of bigotry and racial prejudice. Even if so, if I understand you, that for such an individual, a benign, passive attitude does not make for a solution. Instead, one must make an affirmative, constructive response to overcoming racism, whether personal, organization or societal. Thanks, Alpha.

        • Thekatman
          Thekatman says:

          With all due respect Alpha1906, you and the black community are not the sole targets of racist behavior over the course of our history in the USA. How can you hold folks accountable for behavior their ancestors exhibited? Just about every society on the planet at some time or another held slaves in one form or another. Even in Africa, there were slaves who were owned by black African slave owners. The Jews were slaves to the Egyptians and others for thousands of years. They don’t demand reparations. They don’t push their history in your face. The Jews rose to the occasion and made a better life for themselves and their children so that the children could live a better life than the one they had.

          Even this “white dude” as you have so ungraciously called us has been a target of racists perversions. Growing up with a jewish last name and going to Catholic School created it’s own problems. I learned to fight on the playground, and hated every moment of it, but that’s life. I am not bitter.

          Going to Jewish COmmunity Center summer camps and being the only non-jew in the the camp presented its own problems. I learned to fight in the camp grounds and woods of the greater Chesapeake Bay and Tidewater locales of Norfolk, VA. I am not bitter.

          Always being the new kid on the block and in school, because we moved every 2-4 years, as my dad was a US Naval Aviator, 20 year man, I learned to fight in the backyards of my neighbors. I am not bitter.

          Spending summers on Kauai with my mother’s family and being the only haole in the area and being picked on by the locals, some of whom were my cousins; I had to learn to fight on the beaches of Kauai. I am not bitter.

          The moral of the story is this: You make you own destiny young man. Yes, you may have had some serious community issues in your younger days, perhaps not, but today, the plight of the black community rests soley on the community leadership or lack of it. I do not own your racist views. I am not responsible for your racist experiences. You own it. You deal with it. You make the best of what life throws at you. I lived in the South for 12 years and in Hawaii for many years and if you want to see poor, go there. But the hatred that you pursue is uncalled for and ionly promotes the problems in this country. What I and perhaps others on this thread would like to hear from you would be;
          What do you propose to help make your community a better place to live for young black children?
          What role models are you using in your talks with young black kids about whom to model their life from?
          What are your peers doing to promote love and peace within your lives and communities?

          And BLM is not the answer, as they are more of the problem.
          I stopped succumbing to the liberal politics of white guilt a long time ago. The country has done more for the black community over the past 60 years than any other group of citizens, and folks like you still work to divide the country. Next thing you’ll want is financial reparations from what happened 150 years ago. Ain’t gonna happen.

          • alpha1906
            alpha1906 says:

            For one, you again do not understand how white supremacy works. You think that racism is something that happened ‘in the past’ by someone’s ‘ancestors.’ That’s not how it works. White supremacy is one of the foundations of this country, so you’re living with that fact as we speak today. No need to look to ‘ancestors,’ you instead need to understand that this white supremacy begets systemic and individual racism that you see in society today. It manifests itself in how institutions throughout society benefit white Americans for the most part, while creating situations where people of color have to fight for the same rights.

            I’m trying to figure out where you got that I said that blacks were the sole target of racism in this country. White supremacy is about benefiting white Americans and not treating non-whites as human, so you get: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow laws against black, Mexicans, and Asians in California, Japanese American Concentration camps, restrictive mortgage covenants, etc. etc. etc. I think in your zeal to create a red herring about why white supremacy isn’t responsible for creating a system of racism, you started throwing out a hodgepodge things, just to see if anything sticks.

            African sold slaves. True. However, chattel slavery in the Americas is different than any other human slavery in history in that enslaved Africans were treated as property. Which by its very nature means that they were looked upon as not being human, which means that this country has often not considered it necessary to treat us as human beings. So the fact that Africans sold slaves does nothing to negate the fact that the brutality and inhumanity of white supremacy created a system of racism that we live with today.

            I would go through the rest of your statement, but basically it boils down to the common answer you get from white Americans who fail to understand white supremacy, and who do not want to change it. You fall into a common notion that African Americans are somehow paralyzed by a society in which white supremacy and systemic racism is underlying policy of the land. We’re not. The miracle of miracles is that in an America where everyone is striving to achieve, African Americans still achieve DESPITE the hurdles of white supremacy…or the paternalism of white Americans who think that the country ‘has done more for blacks over the past 60 years’ as though African Americans are interlopers and are not part of’ ‘this country.’ Which goes back to the point that if your mindset is that blacks are not truly human, then how can they be part of ‘this country?’

            Lastly, and I’ll end here: If you think that Black Lives Matter, which fights to make sure that black lives are counted and strives to end police brutality against the black community, is the problem, then you’ve instantly put yourself on the side of police brutality and white supremacy. Which tells me that you just might need a few more black role models in your life…other than musicians and athletes, to explain to you how this old American system works.

          • Don Harmon
            Don Harmon says:

            OK. You win. I give up. I’m too stupid to understand. I confess that by your logic, I surely must be a racist. But nonetheless, I wish you well and can only hope and pray for the day when the scourge of racism, its actions and its mean, twisted, thinking, will pass.

  5. Lunderful
    Lunderful says:

    The “extreme” elements in American society are insignificant – albeit, often loud. Don’t confuse noise with significance.

  6. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    So sorry that Nithya had to endure the racist comments of those students behind her. Racist comments have no place at USC. Not sure what the psych professor was saying at the time, though. If the instruction had become a rant or a tiresome, redundant harangue, though, the students behind Nithya may have been merely fed up and impatient with what has become repetitive, tiresome and even insulting to those who are not racists.

    I have heard students fellow students respond impatiently to such lectures with muttered negative, racist-seeming comments, although they are not racists. “Not racists? Then why would they make negative comments?”

    Because it becomes tiresome and irritating to be admonished, chided, and lectured on something one already believes, in this case, the need to regard others fairly and not by race. I hope that is what happened that day in class, and those students behind Nithya were merely fed up and impatient with an old, constant theme, and not truly racists or haters.

    • Tyler Fox
      Tyler Fox says:

      I find both the writers connection and your comment’s connection with that of criticizing a religion as being equal to an attack on a ethnic group disturbing.This is a very dangerous insinuation that must be met head on. The very idea and first principle of this article is that committing blasphemy or criticizing a religion and the followers of a religion founded by an illiterate businessman is an attack on some race or ethnic group is preposterous. That a criticism I have of Christianity is not an attack on white Europeans or attacking the Orthodox church is not an act of racism against Armenians. Why is that a religion of 1.5 billion people, whose followers are “Muslims” as followers of Christ are “Christians” must be protected. If they say Islam projects violence in the modern era they are right. After all the religion claims to the last and final revelation, in the countries where its’ teachings are followed by theocratic fascist regimes we have the subjugation of women as slaves, the stoning and killing of apostates and homosexuals and the proposal to denounce Jew’s as second class citizens. If I say “Christians” are dumb for wanting to be against the use of condoms, which in Africa would do miracles for the AIDs epidemic there, I am not accused of being “racist” or bigoted. In fact that opinion is applauded, but if I say as I may that the Islamic world has since its inception projected violence and without a renaissance will continue to do so I am racist. For what? I am simply criticizing a religion, though not as well articulated, those two men were pointing out a problem with Islam. For this author and you to equate this with racism is morally and intellectually irresponsible and only shows how far the termites have spread. And as Islam and its apologists spread around the world how much longer may I be able to read “The Satanic Verses” and criticize their archaic religion and its followers before its replaced with “The Protocals of the Elders of Zion” and me being exiled for being an atheist.

      It doesn’t matter how well it is articulated. They could make it soundly and with good evidence or they could do something as draw a cartoon or make a slide comment as they did. There is no substantive difference in the critique.

      • Don Harmon
        Don Harmon says:

        Tyler: Please clarify your main point. I am trying to understand, but am confused.

        Opposition to the concepts of radical Islamism is not based on intellectual philosophy, but on perception to its unmistakeably violent, murderous practices. And no, that is not “racism,” because radical Islamists are not a “race,” but followers of an extremist version of a religion.

        That much I get, I think. Please go on from there and identify your main point.

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