Opinion: Changing social norms is the key to fighting racism


Keith Neuman is a senior associate at the nonprofit Environics Institute for Survey Research. Michael Adams is the founder and president of the institute.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across North America last March, it was hard to imagine anything else capturing much of the public’s attention in the months that followed. And then, in May, video footage of the gruesome murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police sparked a wave of protests that spilled over into the United States and also Canada, a country with its own history of colonialism. and racism. The depth of thought and conversation – public and private – brought about by the protests was unprecedented. For the first time, many leaders in this country have unequivocally recognized the existence of systemic racism in Canada and reflected the prevailing public sentiment. Our own research shows that a significant majority of Canadians now recognize the reality of racial discrimination in this country, especially when it comes to Indigenous and Black people.

Such recognition of racism in our society is an important step, long in coming. Doing something about it becomes the next step and poses an even greater challenge given how deeply ingrained such biases are in the dominant culture and institutions of Canada. Evidence of its pervasiveness confronts us both with personal anecdotes and hard data on racial disparities in many areas of society – from policing and health to education and social welfare.

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It is commonly accepted that the greatest obstacle to meaningful change is our inability to recognize our own racial biases. The prevalence of unconscious racism or “implicit bias” has been well documented by American social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt (in her seminal book, biased) and others. Some have responded by taking steps to make the implicit explicit through education in general, and diversity and anti-racism training in particular. Governments and businesses have invested in programs to teach employees about prejudices and stereotypes, in the hope that awareness will change attitudes, assumptions and behaviors. But evidence is emerging that this strategy is not effective in producing lasting change, as recently reported in a meta-analysis of nearly 1,000 studies of anti-bias interventions.

Efforts to reduce stigma through education and training may simply not work because it is impossible to change people’s mindsets and ingrained emotions, at least in the short term. A more promising avenue to consider is the social context in which people operate when interacting with others. The idea behind diversity training is that racism is primarily fueled by what people know and think, but what matters most is what people say and how they behave in the presence of others. . Outward expressions of racism are largely governed by collective social norms regarding acceptable behavior. The term “standards” is sometimes mentioned in the context of problematic content on social media, but what has yet to receive serious attention is the concept of “social standards” as a fundamental aspect of society that contributes to the systemic nature of racism and where we might focus to solve the problem.

Social norms are widely held expectations of what is, and is not, acceptable to say and do in particular situations. What sets such standards apart is that they are not defined by what people think is important to them personally, but by what they see as the social expectations of others whose opinions matter to them. As such, standards exert a powerful influence on the way people act in public and social situations, regardless of what they may think or feel inside.

These standards are generally well established, but change over time. The Holocaust led many to decide that it was no longer acceptable to express anti-Jewish stereotypes. The growing awareness of LGBTQ people in society and the legislative approval of same-sex marriage have both improved attitudes and also made the trade in homophobic slurs socially unacceptable. Many people may still have negative opinions about Jews and LGBTQ people, but most now understand that voicing them is no longer acceptable.

Sometimes social norms change as a result of intentional efforts. Perhaps the most striking example is the successful campaign to change the standards for smoking in public. A little over a generation ago, smoking in public was common, if not cool. Today, behavior has effectively become “denormalized” because it is inconsiderate and doomed to failure, even though a significant proportion of the population continues to smoke in private. Regulatory measures that restrict smoking in public places are also important, but it is standards rather than laws that govern behavior. In contrast, think about jaywalking, which is also prohibited by law but widely accepted socially.

Social norms play a key role in the dynamics of racism and prejudice, as they set the boundaries around which people act towards those they see as “other”. While internal attitudes and stereotypes stubbornly resist short-term change, action and speech are more susceptible to influencing and normative pressures. This means that focusing on social norms can be an effective strategy to tackle racism in a meaningful way – especially if collective norms against intolerance and discrimination strengthen, which now appears to be happening. Proof of this is the recent public condemnation of wearing “blackface” in costume, which in another era was considered by many to be harmless party attire.

There is nothing new about the concept of social norms, which social scientists have studied in academia and applied to public health challenges in developing countries. What has been missing is the practical application of this science to important societal issues such as racism, as well as other pressing challenges such as the promotion of physical distancing during a pandemic. The essential starting point is first to properly define and measure specific social norms regarding race-related actions and discourses in order to determine their extent and strength in the population (a type of research our institute is now considering to undertake). Such information can then indicate where interventions might be directed – to reinforce the ‘positive norms’ that currently prevail in society (no wearing of blackface) and to denormalize’ negative norms’ (for example, telling jokes that demean ‘ the other “) . This could take the form of public awareness campaigns (as has been done to denormalize smoking in public) or employee-led programs. Government and business leaders can be effective communicators of appropriate normative behavior, as long as they are credible and can exert influence on relevant audiences (which research could confirm).

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Today in Canada, our understanding of the current reality of racial injustice is at odds with our stated aspirations for justice and inclusion. This tension offers us a valuable opportunity to create a more just society by developing new strategies that effectively apply normative pressures on each other to better treat each other as we expect to be treated.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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