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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019


Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3


"You See Race, But Do You Want to Talk About It?" With Jennifer Richeson, PhD

Jennifer Richeson, PhD,
Yale University

Joseph Dyson,
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Race is complicated and sometimes uncomfortable to discuss. It’s often a topic that is avoided at all costs. One strategy that people adopt in order to avoid discussing this subject is to claim that they are “colorblind” and that they “don’t see race.”

However, Dr. Jennifer Richeson embraces the idea of discussing race. A professor of psychology at Yale University, Dr. Richeson has dedicated her career to studying intergroup relations and how racial dynamics affect the larger society. Her work on the subject has been featured in academic journals and mainstream media publications alike.

Dr. Richeson is Psi Chi’s Distinguished Lecturer for the upcoming 2019 EPA Convention. To further educate Psi Chi members, she kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions about race, the supposedly impending “minority-majority,” and more.

Why do people often get antsy when race is discussed, especially those who ascribe to a more color-blind philosophy?

Mostly because they have been told, quite erroneously, that noticing race or mentioning racial categories is itself racist. This is simply not true. And further, pretending not to notice is not only nearly impossible—your brain has already noticed—but it is often the fastest route to engaging in thoughts that facilitate stereotyping, discrimination, and thus racial disparities. Indeed, if you don’t acknowledge race, you can’t assess the presence (or absence) of racial discrimination or disparities based on race. Well, if you don’t assess or acknowledge such disparities, you certainly can’t do anything about them.

Can you explain how you came to support multiculturalism over colorblindness?

The research suggests that colorblindness is unrealistic, in terms of actually not noticing racial categories. This mindset is counter-productive in terms of facilitating unbiased decisions, reducing the expression of prejudice, and promoting positive interracial interactions. Multiculturalism is not without fault either, according to research—it can increase stereotyping for instance. In other words, not noticing and acknowledging race is quite harmful, but of course so too is putting too much focus on race/ethnicity, especially when there is no need to do so and/or the intention is to discriminate! In other words, there are no easy ways forward, but the one that people think is a panacea—colorblindness—is simply not effective at reducing discrimination, at best, and can be detrimental as mentioned previously (e.g., keeping people blind to discrimination and disparities).

One of your main points is that “Diversity can be challenging.” How so, and can diversity be more or less difficult for people depending on the circumstances?

Diversity necessarily means that people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are brought together. For some, this may be the first time that you realize that other people even have different experiences, customs, and practices and that they may not view the world in the same way as you. This can be threatening, as long-held and perhaps cherished beliefs about how the world works could now be up for (re)investigation. Even if a new experience with a diverse group is not threatening per se, it could be uncomfortable, as people may need to rethink what the norms should be. Typically, however, the discomfort dissipates the longer you are in the context, assuming people don’t bolt due to the discomfort.

In a past interview, you mentioned that you became interested in racial dynamics while you were in school. Was there a moment in your life or school that made you want to do what you do now?

This is too long of an answer for one question, but it is a good way to reinforce what I was saying in response to the previous question. When you find yourself in a racially, ethnically, or really any kind of diverse context, it is likely that you will think about your own identities in new and/or different ways. This was the case for me, as I first went to an almost all-White school and then to a predominantly Black school, and began to notice the relationship between race and academic expectations for the first time. In addition, I was very involved in ballet at the time, which gave me another look into how race may shape interests and opportunities to participate if not excel in different domains of life. Much like how going to a difficult country often opens one’s eyes to how others perceive one’s nation/nationality and may even lead people to think about their national identity for the first time, having experiences in diverse spaces can help bring a level of awareness about the role of race/ethnicity in one’s own life and in society at large.

How did growing up in a predominantly White community affect your career choice?

Honestly, I don’t think that it did, or at least not directly. Probably the most influential factor in my decision to become a university professor was going to a predominantly White college and having almost no Black professors. Then, I encountered a Black female professor, who also happened to be a psychologist, and she opened my eyes to the possibility of this career for people like me. Indeed, much of why I am still working on a university campus is to stand for what is possible for other students—students from all races, and of all backgrounds.

Who were some of your mentors, and how did they help you in your career?

The list is far too long to relay here, but I have been very lucky to have had extraordinary mentors throughout my career, and I continue to benefit from such mentoring.

It has been predicted that non-Whites will outnumber Whites by 2050, thus creating a “majority-minority.” How do you see America reacting to this? What can we do to ensure a positive transition?

I actually don’t think it is likely to occur then, if at all. This date is a projection, and any number of factors are involved in generating it, including a decision to count anyone who says that they are White + something else (i.e., multiracial individuals) as non-White. This is a choice. Similarly, this projection depends on assumptions about immigration and births/deaths as a function of race. In other words, the projection itself is based on fairly shaky ground, and the “majority-minority” is basically a bankrupt idea that causes more harm than anyone expected. What can we do? We can decide not worry about it. To recognize that a United States in which White Americans are less than 50% of the population—yet still the most numerous racial group—is nothing to fear. That, America has an opportunity to become the racially/ethnically, religiously diverse democratic nation that it promises to be. We have an opportunity to live up to our ideals.

You noted that being around diverse kinds of people can lessen fears of the minority-majority. And yet, you have also found that throwing people into a situation where they have to interact with a diverse set of people isn’t always going to create racially unanxious people either. Are there ways to ensure that diversity encounters produce positive results?

Nope! Well, no way to ensure that encounters with people from different backgrounds will lead to more positive outcomes (e.g., more positive racial attitudes). But, engaging with individuals from different backgrounds long enough and substantively enough to overcome the anxiety and discomfort and recognize our common humanity is one way to engender more positive intergroup relations. As someone who researches intergroup relations and race for your career, what are some misconceptions that you often hear about your work and your field? I think that people don’t really understand that race is socially constructed not biological. That belief is still very pervasive. It is also fairly unknown that these types of issues can be studied experimentally and scientifically.

If students are interested in this area of research, what classes should they take or extracurricular activities can they participate in?

These topics are studied quite extensively in social and personality psychology, but also in sociology, and even somewhat in political science and economics. And, of course, all of the work is related to history and African American studies/ethnic studies. In other words, there are many routes to learn more about race and racism!

Where do you expect your field of research to go next? What big questions would you like to see tackled?

Luckily, the best part of my job is that I don’t know! I get to follow the questions that inspire me. Certainly, some of my work will be focused on how to foster diverse environments without the types of backlash we often see. This will aid in the emergence and maintenance of a diverse and democratic United States in which all Americans feel a sense of trust, investment, and belonging.

Jennifer Richeson, PhD, is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. She earned her ScB from Brown University in 1994 and PhD from Harvard University in 2000. Richeson studies the social psychology of cultural diversity. Much of her recent work examines consequences of the rising racial/ethnic diversity of the nation. She also investigates how people reason about and respond to different forms of societal inequality and the implications of such processes for detecting, confronting, and coping with injustice. Professor Richeson is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and her research has been recognized with numerous awards including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship and APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions. Through her teaching and research, she hopes to contribute to a better understanding of intergroup relations including how best to foster culturally diverse environments that are both cohesive and just.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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