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date: 24 May 2017

Culture, Prejudice, Racism, and Discrimination

Summary and Keywords

Prejudice is a broad social phenomenon and area of research, complicated by the fact that intolerance exists in internal cognitions but is manifest in symbol usage (verbal, nonverbal, mediated), law and policy, and social and organizational practice. It is based on group identification (i.e., perceiving and treating a person or people in terms of outgroup membership); but that outgroup can range from the more commonly known outgroups based on race, sex/gender, nationality, or sexual orientation to more specific intolerances of others based on political party, fan status, or membership in some perceived group such as “blonde” or “athlete.” This article begins with the link of culture to prejudice, noting specific culture-based prejudices of ethnocentrism and xenophobia. It then explores the levels at which prejudice might be manifest, finally arriving at a specific focus of prejudice—racism; however, what applies to racism may also apply to other intolerances such as sexism, heterosexism, classism, or ageism.

The discussion and analysis of prejudice becomes complicated when we approach a specific topic like racism, though the tensions surrounding this phenomenon extend to other intolerances such as sexism or heterosexism. Complications include determining the influences that might lead to individual racism or an atmosphere of racism, but also include the very definition of what racism is: Is it an individual phenomenon, or does it refer to an intolerance that is supported by a dominant social structure? Because overt intolerance has become unpopular in many societies, researchers have explored how racism and sexism might be expressed in subtle terms; others investigate how racism intersects with other forms of oppression, including those based on sex/gender, sexual orientation, or colonialism; and still others consider how one might express intolerance “benevolently,” with good intentions though still based on problematic racist or sexist ideologies.

Keywords: culture, racism, discrimination, prejudice, intolerance, sexism, heterosexism, stereotypes, ethnocentrism, xenophobia


One of the causes that gave rise to the postmodern revolution in France in 1968 was the failure of modern science and philosophy—liberalism, social science, reason, and so on—to remedy problems of war, poverty, and intolerance (Rosenau, 1992). As we look around today at the world in general, or even within specific nations, we continue to see a wide range of prejudice, from the 1994 genocide of Tutsis (and many Hutus) by Hutus in Rwanda to the mass killing of 70 people, mostly youths, at a Utøyan youth camp in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik. At this writing, a major refugee problem exists from people fleeing Middle Eastern countries where a strong ISIS influence is leading to the killing of gays, Christians, and Muslims from rival belief systems. In many European countries, hate groups and right-wing politicians are gaining ground. The Southern Poverty Law center tracks 1,600 hate groups within the United States (“Hate and Extremism,” n.d.), classifying 784 that were active in 2014 (“Hate Map,” n.d.), and the FBI reports nearly 6,000 hate crimes in the United States, with the greatest numbers due to race (48.5%), religion (17.4%), and sexual orientation (20.8%; FBI, 2014). These statistics reveal some interesting things about intolerance. For example, the “race”-based hate crimes include crimes based on anti-white sentiment as well as against people of color; and about 61% of hate crimes based on sexual orientation target gay males.

Both the international events and the statistics relevant to any specific nation prompt difficult questions about intolerance. In a white-dominant society, can or should we call anti-white crimes by people of color “racist”? If someone commits a hate crime based on sexual orientation, why are gay men more often the target than lesbians? Would hate crimes in other countries reflect the same axes of difference, or might hate crimes be based differently? German hate crimes might be based more on ethnicity (e.g., against Turkish immigrants, who by most racial classifications would be Caucasian). Why do people commit such acts at all?

One mistake we often make is thinking of prejudice and discrimination only in extreme terms such as genocide and hate crimes. In many countries and cultures, where overt expression of racism (and other intolerances) has become socially unacceptable, intolerances have gone “underground,” hidden in subtle forms. Further, intolerance can rely upon a wide variety of identity groups, including some that are (supposedly) biologically based, like racism, or based on other aspects, such as political party, fan status, or membership in some perceived group such as “blonde” or “athlete.” In sum, we must consider the relationship between different forms of intolerance, including but not limited to prejudice, racism, and discrimination; but these must always be understood within specific cultural contexts.

Culture and Intolerance

(Re)Defining Culture

As we look to the cultural influence on intolerance, we must first consider the definition of culture. The study of culture has deep roots in anthropological and linguistic research, especially as seen in the work of Franz Boaz and his students Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward Sapir, as well as in the early work of Edward Tyler, itself based on earlier traditions of ethology (Darwin) and social evolution (Marx). This work influenced the work of anthropologist E. T. Hall (Rogers & Hart, 2002) and others who laid the groundwork for the study of intercultural communication (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990). Scholars have debated whether culture is a shared mental framework of beliefs, norms for behavior (i.e., the expectations for behavior rather than the behaviors themselves), values, and worldview, or whether culture should also include actual behaviors, texts, and artifacts of a group. In 1952, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn synthesized over 150 definitions of culture into a single definition that focuses on “patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior,” along with “ideas and especially their attached values” (p. 181). These are influenced and created through symbolic behavior, action, and other aspects of the environment (history, geography). The definitional dimensions of culture described by Kroeber and Kluckhohn explained well many of the definitions of culture up until the 1980s. After that time, some scholars (especially in communication) began to treat culture more as a set of symbols and meanings. Others framed culture as a process of constructing social meanings and systems through communication. As people sing, speak, play, tell jokes, and conduct business, they are constantly (re)creating their culture—both relying upon it and changing it.

More pertinent to the study of intolerance is a new approach to culture that sees culture neither as “suitcase” of things (be those beliefs and values or texts and artifacts) passed down from one generation to the next nor as a neutral process of mutual symbolic creation through time, but as having vested power interests that seek to influence what is seen as accepted or normal within a culture. For example, Moon (2002) defines culture as a “contested zone”:

Thinking about culture as a contested zone helps us understand the struggles of cultural groups and the complexities of cultural life … If we define culture as a contested zone in which different groups struggle to define issues in their own interests, we must also recognize that not all groups have equal access to public forums to voice their concerns, perspectives, and the everyday realities of their lives”

(pp. 15–16).

That is, every cultural manifestation, such as the framing of Australian culture as “individualistic” or saying that “Australian men have such-and-such characteristics,” highlights what one should not be within that culture and establishes bounds for group-based intolerance.

With this diversity of definitions in mind, one is not sure what to think culture is or should be. Baldwin, Faulkner, Hecht, and Lindsley (2006) present a series of essays on the definition of culture by authors from six different disciplines (e.g., multicultural education, anthropology, political science), as well as 313 definitions of culture from an even greater number of disciplines, which they analyze. While they are reluctant to settle on a single definition of culture, this definition embraces most trends:

The way of life of a group of people, including symbols, values, behaviors, artifacts, and other shared aspects, that continually evolves as people share messages and is often the result of a struggle between groups who share different perspectives, interests, and power relationships

(Baldwin, Coleman, González, & Shenoy-Packer, 2014, p. 55).

This definition of culture, like most definitions that take a symbolic, process, or critical approach, does not treat cultures as “nations,” but as people groups who share symbolic or speech codes, with multiple cultural groups—defined not by demographic constitutions such as race, sex, or age, but by shared communicative realities—sharing single geographic areas. It is in the creation and defending of cultures—from countries to local and virtual communities—that intolerance often becomes apparent.

The Role of Culture in Prejudice

Of various schools of thought about the nature and origins of intolerance, only one approach suggests that intolerance is biological or in some way inherited, and that is sociobiology, or evolutionary theory. This approach suggests that intolerance is based on such things as preservation of the purity of the gene pool of one’s group, an inherent fear of strangers, or an inherited need for group identity. But even evolutionary theorists cannot explain all intolerance based on a theory of inherited impulse. Meyer (1987) argues:

Xenophobia and ethnocentrism as extreme forms of this search for identity cannot be attributed to [human] biology … Their very existence is a result of [human’s] attempts towards understanding the world, and [their] strong affective need to delimit a cosmos of conspecifics with whom [they] can share interpretations of [their] socially construed world

(p. 93).

Research on intolerance in 90 preindustrial societies suggests that, when there are clearly psychological causes for intergroup conflict, groups ultimately use communication to create who the enemy is and how one should demonstrate or show intolerance (Ross, 1991). In sum, there is a strong cultural component determining which intolerances are felt or expressed in a given place or time.

Culture, however one defines it, can affect tolerance. Culture might be a set of values and beliefs, such as the value of loyalty to one’s group, combined with a belief that people who belong to a particular group have particular characteristics, are unlikeable for some reason, or merit mistreatment and the application of a different set of standards than we apply to ourselves (Opotow, 1990). If culture is a process, then we might look at how a culture creates both identity and intolerance through the ongoing structures of language, including word choices (“babe,” “hunk,” “faggot”), conversational structure (interruptions, etc.), joke- and storytelling, and so on. For example, West and Zimmerman’s (1987) notion of “doing gender” (i.e., gender as an everyday accomplishment of language) has led to countless studies of gender construction in several nations, as well as a focus by others on how we also “do race” and other identities. The way that we construct our identities through communication is inherently linked to how we construct the identities of those in outgroups, as we shall see; but they are also linked to behavior within our group. Social constructionist approaches to culture thus often become critical in their focus on power relations. Critical approaches look at how cultures, through communication, architecture, law, literature, education, and so on create a sense of the “other”—and of the self—that constrains us and pits us against one another in group conflict.

“Culture”-Based Prejudices: Ethnocentrism, Xenophobia

The purpose of this article is primarily to look at racism and discrimination as forms of prejudice; however, these cannot be understood without a larger understanding of prejudice in general and other forms or types of prejudice. Allport (1979) defines prejudice as an antipathy one has or a tendency to avoid the other, based on the other person’s group. For Allport, prejudice is a cognitive or psychological phenomenon:

Prejudice is ultimately a problem of personality formation and development; no two cases of prejudice are precisely the same. No individual would mirror his [or her] group’s attitude unless he [or she] had a personal need, or personal habit, that leads him [or her] to do so

(p. 41).


Based on the Greek word that means “fear of strangers,” xenophobia refers to “the fear or hatred of anything that is foreign or outside of one’s own group, nation, or culture” (Herbst, 1997, p. 235). The idea is frequently applied to a mistrust or dislike (rather than merely fear) of outgroups or those perceived to be different, especially in national terms. While the Greek translation suggests the psychological component of fear, recent researchers have treated the concept in behavioral or message terms. Historical research on xenophobia links it to anti-Semitism and, more recently, to Islamophobia, though it does not have as clear a historical trajectory as ethnocentrism; many more recent studies look at South Africa as a model nation in attempting to strategically reduce xenophobia. Researchers use a variety of methods to look at xenophobia, depending on their research assumptions and background disciplines. Rhetorical media research, for example, analyzes how Czech newspapers code anti-Roma sentiment through subtle terms such as “inadaptable citizens” (nepřízpůsobivý občan, Slavíčková & Zvagulis, 2014, p. 159); and psychological survey research investigates how, among Southern California students, ethnocentrism is positively associated with both language prejudice and feelings of being threatened by immigrants (Ura, Preston, & Mearns, 2015).

Van Dijk (1993) notes how groups can use language such as hyperbole of differences to marginalize immigrants, often through appeals to so-called democratic values. He notes that in some countries, such as in Central Europe, where claims of racism are often forcefully resisted due to conceptual ties of the term to Hitler’s Holocaust, Ausländerfeindlicheit (fear of foreigners) takes its place, though this fear of foreigners is frequently aimed at Turks and other (often darker-skinned and religiously different) people who resist adoption of traditional Germanic culture.


Some types of prejudice relate specifically to the larger and more traditional notion of culture (i.e., cultures as nations). Ethnocentrism gained prominence as an area of research following sociologist Robert Sumner’s 1906 definition of the term as gauging others in reference to one’s own culture (1975), though other sociologists soon began to distinguish between this notion of “centrality” and the idea of “superiority”—that one’s culture or group is superior to those of others. If one sees ethnocentrism strictly as a feeling of superiority, nationalism (or school spirit, or religious loyalty, etc.) might not in and of itself be ethnocentric if it focuses only on being loyal to or highlighting the benefits of one’s own group, without denigrating others, though some might argue that it is impossible to feel pride in one’s own group without, at some level, disdaining or thinking less of other groups. The possibility of an ethnocentric bias in research led many early anthropologists to suggest ethnography—spending extended time within a culture to see things from cultural members’ point of view—as a way to reduce ethnocentrism in research.

A consideration of ethnocentrism has implications for other forms of bias as well, as the factors that predict national cultural ethnocentrism—and solutions that address it—could apply equally to one’s perception of life within one’s own community. The Hmong-descended people of the Pacific Northwest in the United States will likely feel that their ways are superior to those of Moroccan- or Guatemalan-descended peoples, as well as to those of the dominant culture. Auestad (2013) presented a series of essays on the rise of political discourses across the world that highlighted elements of national security and identity (tradition), as well as the building of cultures of fear by focusing on the negative aspects of foreigners or those of different religious groups within single countries. Some elements of the U.S. presidential race rhetoric of 2015–2016 exemplified this xenophobic and ethnocentric trend.

Within the field of intercultural communication, at least two lines of research have focused on ethnocentrism. The first is by Jim Neuliep, who, with colleagues, has revisited the measurement of ethnocentrism in the classic 1950 work by the Frankfurt School, The Authoritarian Personality, with a new measure of ethnocentrism. After applying the measure to white Americans, Neuliep (2012) continues to test the relationship of ethnocentrism to other important intercultural variables, such as intercultural anxiety and communication satisfaction. The second is Milton Bennett’s (1993) consideration of ethnorelativism. In this approach, a range of attitudes reflects either ethnocentrism or ethnorelativism. Ethnocentric stances include denial (e.g., indifference toward or ignorance of any difference at all), defense (traditional ethnocentrism of denigrating the culture of the other or feeling one’s own culture is superior, but also in “going native”), and minimization (focusing on similarities and ignoring differences, by claiming “color blindness,” or focusing on how we are all the same, be that as “God’s children” or in the Marxist struggle against oppression; 43). As one grows more “ethnorelative,” or accepting of difference, one exhibits one of three stages: acceptance (being respectful of and even appreciating the value and behavioral differences of others), adaptation (actually adopting behaviors or views of other groups), or integration (adopting a worldview that transcends any single culture). This approach has gained ground around the world and in different disciplines, from Finland to Iran, with applications from cultural sensitivity to interreligious tensions.


One of the difficulties of discussing prejudice is the conceptual overlap between terms (e.g., xenophobia conflates with racial or ethnic prejudice; ethnocentrism might refer to any people group, such as ethnic groups, and not just nations). At the root of our understanding of prejudice is the very goal of “tolerance.” In fact, the notion of tolerance for diversity may be limited: It is often treated merely as “the application of the same moral principles and rules, caring and empathy, and feelings of connections to human beings of other perceived groups” (Baldwin & Hecht, 1995, p. 65). That is, it is similar to Bennett’s (1993) notion of acceptance, of respect for difference, though that respect sometimes (a) occurs at a difference and (b) sometimes exists in behavioral form only, but is not internalized. Communication of tolerance is a worthwhile pursuit in our behavior and research; however, we argue that we can go beyond tolerance to appreciation—even to the behavioral and attitudinal integration of elements of the other culture (Hecht & Baldwin, 1998). There is a danger of such appreciation, as borrowing (e.g., “cultural hybridity”) occurs within power relations. We are not talking about a dominant group borrowing from subordinate or subaltern groups in a colonizing or folklorizing way, but about cultural learning and dialogue.

Limited Perspectives of Prejudice

That consideration of tolerance/prejudice should be treated as a dichotomy or a range is only one of the difficulties that has haunted the study and conceptualization of prejudice. Debates have swirled around the nature of prejudice, the causes of prejudice, and the “locus” of certain prejudices (such as racism or sexism), among other things. Allport (1979) suggests that prejudice is a “generalized” attitude—that if one is prejudiced, say, toward Jewish people, she or he will also be prejudiced toward communists, people of color, and so on. It is possible, however, that one might be prejudiced toward some groups, even in some contexts, but not toward other groups (Baldwin & Hecht, 1995).

The nature of prejudice

Allport (1979) defines prejudice as “an avertive [i.e., avoiding] or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he [or she] belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group” (p. 7). By this definition, prejudice is an aspect of affect, or feeling toward a group, though it is closely related to cognitions, or thoughts about the group, referring to stereotypes. Also, prejudice is inherently negative, following the primary definition common in modern dictionaries, though a secondary definition includes any sort of prejudgment based on group belonging, such as prejudice toward one’s own group. Most dictionary definitions follow the attitudinal approach, though in common usage, people often use the term to refer to things like racism, which carry behavioral and even policy implications that are not strictly attitudes. By strictest definition, prejudice is an attitude that favors one group over another, based on or related to cognitions, and both leading to and influenced by behaviors (including communication), texts (e.g., media, rhetoric), and policies (following the notion of structuration, in which social structures guide social behavior, but social behavior in turn creates and changes social structures).

Causes of prejudice

Allport (1979) recognized a series of influences that impact a particular incident of prejudice, such as police brutality based on racial group/social class divisions or anti-Islamic bullying in secondary schools around the Western world. These include historical, sociological, situational, psychodynamic, and phenomenological (i.e., perceptual) influences. But ultimately, for Allport, a social psychologist, prejudice is “a problem of personality formation and development” (p. 41). For Althusser (1971), a Marxist philosopher, prejudice would likely, in the last instance, be an issue of economic and social class considerations. Ultimately, a cross-disciplinary perspective is more useful for understanding a complex phenomenon like prejudice (Hecht & Baldwin, 1998). A broader consideration should consider multiple causes (Baldwin, 1998), including evolutionary causes, psychological causes (both psychodynamic and perceptual), sociological causes, and rhetorical causes. Communication and behavior become central in each of these causes, highlighting the need for a communicative understanding of prejudice.

Evolutionary causes, often referred to under the rubric of sociobiology, focus on the way in which prejudice might be an inherited trait, possibly even genetic (see, e.g., essays in Reynolds, Falger, & Vine, 1987). This approach includes the idea that groups seek to preserve themselves (e.g., by preservation of a supposedly pure gene pool or because of fear of the stranger), the ethnocentrism already noted. Behaviors that exclude have a sense of “naturalness” in that they help a group to survive, and such exclusion of strangers may help to preserve a group’s existence. Some scholars have criticized this approach as a rationale for conservative politics that create a notion of “us” and “them” as natural and that exclude the other, often in racial or religious terms, in order to preserve the way of life of a dominant group within a culture or nation.

Psychological explanations of prejudice fall into at least two major divisions. The first, psychodynamic, suggests that prejudice serves as a mechanism for individuals to meet psychological needs. Thus researchers have long linked it to things such as ambivalence toward parents, rigid personality structure, and a need for authority (Allport, 1979; Adorno et al., 1950). We see this indirectly through Kenneth Burke’s (1967) approach to rhetoric in his analysis of Hitler’s campaign against Jewish people as a means to divert negative emotions related to economic and political difficulties from the mainstream German people to Jews, and in Edward Said’s (2003) Orientalism, which notes how Medieval Europe cast negative images of lust and vice on Middle Easterners that the Europeans did not see in themselves.

A second aspect of the psychological approach concerns perception or cognition. This contains a range of possible influences on prejudice, including such things as selective attention, perception, and recall of the negative behavior of outgroup members, or the notion of attributional biases that impact how we give meanings to the behavior of those of our ingroup and those of outgroups. At the center of many of these explanations is the notion of categorization of people (i.e., dividing them into cognitive groups such as ingroups and outgroups). Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) suggests that we cannot think of ourselves apart from the groups to which we belong; we engage in intergroup comparison as a means to make us feel better about our group; and, if our group does not compare well to a group we admire or must rely on in some way—often the dominant group—we engage in strategies to reclaim a sense of pride for our group or distance ourselves from it.

Categorization, in social identity theory, is not a form of prejudice—it is simply the mental placing of people (or things, actions, characteristics, etc.) into mental boxes. However, those boxes are closely related to the stereotypes that cling to groups. Stereotypes are overgeneralizations we make about groups that we apply to individuals in those groups (Herbst, 1997). Although these stereotypes provide a mental shortcut for processing information about others, they interfere with our encoding, storage, and recall of information about members of our own group and other groups (Stephan, 1985). Countless studies of stereotypes suggest that stereotypes, like ethnocentrism, can serve positive ingroup functions, that they sometimes have at least some basis in an actual behavior or custom (a “kernel of truth”), and that we stereotype both our own group and other groups. Devine (e.g., Devine & Sharp, 2009) has found that even people who report lower prejudice, if mentally occupied, still rely on stereotypes, suggesting that everyone is aware of societal stereotypes toward certain groups (e.g., the elderly, athletes, the deaf). It is likely that if we are on auto-pilot or in a state of mindlessness, we will resort to stereotypes. But individuating people (i.e., taking them out of the group we perceive them to be in and treating them as individuals; Dovidio, Gaertner, & Kawakami, 2003) may require deliberate cognitive effort.

Group-based, or sociological, approaches, like psychological approaches, are varied. These include Marxist approaches, which are themselves varied in form (see various essays in Rex & Mason, 1986). Some hold tightly to a “vulgar” vision of Marxism, framing intolerance like racism as a creation of the elite to divide the working classes and distract them from revolution through “false consciousness.” Few Marxists take such a severe approach, choosing to see looser relations between capital and the construction of intolerance, but in the “last instance,” seeing intolerance as linked to social class and economic systems. “Capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchal social systems are frequently identified as producing inherent race and gender inequalities which, in various ways, serve the needs of the systems they perpetuate” (Knowles & Mercer, 1992, p. 110). Weberian approaches see a wider variety of classes than workers and elite, with prejudice linked not just to labor forces but to the struggle over goods, services, and prestige (Gerth & Mills, 1946). Other group-based factors also impact prejudice, such as perceived group competition for jobs and resources in times of economic upheaval (e.g., the 1970s oil crisis in the United States), known as realistic group conflict (Bobo, 1983); immigration reasons (refugees versus those seeking economic opportunity, patterns of settlement; Omi & Winant, 1986); and historically developed class statuses between groups that link immigrants or members of a minority group to a certain class (Wilson, 1978), such as the Gastarbeiter (guest-worker) Turks in Germany or the Algerian-descended French.

In a classic “chicken-egg” argument about which came first, it is fruitless to debate whether psychology leads to sociological causes or vice versa, and, in turn, whether these lead to the communicative expression of intolerance, or whether it is the communicative construction of group identities and intolerance that creates the attitudes (Ruscher, 2001). It is more likely that mental structures and communicative practices co-create each other, through forms we shall examine in more detail. One possible metaphor for understanding these influences, the impact of historical situations (such as the longstanding antipathy between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Broome, 2005), and specific incidents (such as the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City in 2001), is as layers building upon one other, or even as a hologram, in which we can imperfectly see some semblance of a complex prejudice through a single image—an experimental study on racial perceptions and media use, an analysis of an anti-Irish speech or a pro-nationalist song, or interviews with women who are victims of catcalling (Hecht & Baldwin, 1998). But, as a complete hologram provides the most faithful image, the most complete view of an intolerance will come through multiple views (e.g., disciplines), using multiple methods.

Racism: A Case Study in Prejudice

Racism as a specific type of prejudice is one of the most hotly discussed and debated sites of intolerance in contemporary times in the United States and beyond. Even countries that once imagined themselves as “racial democracies” in which racially different people lived side by side (like Brazil) are now admitting the harsh reality of entrenched and historic racism. Even though many there argue that class, not race, is the primary social distinction, as racism has become officially illegal, forms of overt racism, from social media to abuse and killing of unarmed blacks by police continue to receive recent focus in U.S. news.

Racism is a form of intolerance that is based on the supposedly biological distinction of race, but many authors today argue that race is a social construct, sometimes defined differently from country to country and even over time within a single country. Different authors have outlined the history of the notion of race in the English language, noting that at different times, it has referred to an ancestral clan (the race of Abraham), to supposed biological differences, and, more recently, to culture (Banton, 1987; Omi & Winant, 1986). Those who see a biological component cannot agree on how many races there are and, historically, politics and rhetoric have done as much to construct who belongs in a particular race as biology (e.g., in the early U.S., the Irish were considered “colored”). In the United States, race was based on racist assumptions, on one having even a small degree of colored blood in one’s ancestral lineage; in other cultures, race is based strictly on physiological features, regardless of lineage. Ethnicity, in contrast, is related more to the cultural origins of one’s background or ancestry, sometimes linked to a specific time and place. To emphasize its social constructedness, many authors bracket “race” with quotation marks.

Who Can Be Racist? The Locus of Racism (and Other Intolerances)

Can minority members be “racist”?

Beyond the nature of race itself, researchers and educators debate the very nature of racism. Some contend that racism is an intolerance based on the construction of race that is perpetrated and held by the support of the dominant system. For example, Malott and Schaefle (2015) define racism as “a system of oppression, whereby persons of a dominant racial group (whites in the United States) exercise power or privilege over those in nondominant groups” (p. 361). According to this argument, only whites can be racist in a white-dominated system (whether that dominance is by numbers or in political and social power). Others contend that racism is any system of beliefs—“held consciously or otherwise”—that treats members of a group that is different on supposedly biological grounds as “biologically different than one’s own” (Herbst, 1997, p. 193). By this definition, anyone who sees another race group as inferior would be racist.

The locus of racism: Individual or structural?

This distinction in racism also applies to definitions of sexism or to the delineation between homophobia as a personal dislike or fear of LGBT individuals and heterosexism as a social structure that reinforces prejudice against them (Nakayama, 1998). The debate is similar to the definitional debate of prejudice in general—is it something that is strictly an individual trait, or is it something that is socially built into the structures of society—the laws, the media, the educational system, the church, and so on? Associated with this question is the nature of what racism is: The “individual-level” definition treats racism as a system of beliefs (i.e., a psychological construct), and the other treats it as a system of oppression that goes beyond individual psyche and personality to consider racism embedded within social structures. The question of where we see racism (and other intolerances) is vitally important. Those who see racism and other intolerances as primarily individual-level (stereotypes, personal dislikes, etc.) tend to address intolerance through training and educational programs in organizations and schools; those who see it as systemic believe that such approaches ignore larger issues of policy, law, segregation, discrimination, and media/rhetoric that produce and reproduce racist beliefs or create an environment that makes them grow. We see this tension, for example, in Rattansi’s (1992) discussion of the debate between multicultural education—an educational solution to tolerance focused on educating about differences—and antiracism, which addresses political and social structures that propagate and support racism.

Racism: Defined by intent or result?

A related definitional distinction regarding racism concerns whether an intent of harm or exclusion is necessary to define thoughts or actions as racist. Miles (1989) criticizes earlier notions of racism, largely in that they re-inscribe the notion of race as if it were a concrete reality rather than a social construction. He weaves together a new approach to racism that begins with discourses that serve to exclude the “other” (based on supposed biological differences); for Miles, “the concept of racism should refer to the function, rather than the content of the discourses” (p. 49), allowing racism to include things that may not sound racist but still seek to exclude the other. Miles differentiates racism from racialization, the categorization of people based on supposed biological differences. He argues against the use of racism and disagrees with a stance that would have only whites being racist, such that “all ‘white’ people are universally and inevitably sick with racism” (p. 53), as this concept may ignore the specifics of racism in particular countries, cultures, or circumstances; however, he notes the need to consider institutional racism—racism built into organizational, legal, and social structures—that does favor whites in many countries. By this, one could speak of racism as something any person could hold or express, but institutional racism would be reserved for a group that has power in a particular context. Finally, he bases racism not on the intent of an action, but on the result. He argues that racism is an ideology, based on differentiation, that leads to “exclusionary practices” (pp. 77–78), such as differential treatment or allocation of resources and opportunities, regardless of one’s intent or even awareness of the ideological underpinnings of one’s actions. Goldberg (1993) argues that we should allow racism to include either intent or result.

Including resulting exclusionary practice in our definition of racism has implications for redressing or addressing racism. First, it suggests a limitation in addressing overt racist thoughts and stereotypes only through education, as policies, laws, and social structures foster an environment for the presence of such thoughts and their communication. Miles (1989) advocates that “strategies for eliminating racism should concentrate less on trying exclusively to persuade those who articulate racism that they are ‘wrong’ and more on changing those particular economic and political relations” (p. 82). A second implication is that, even as we seek to address racism through everyday interactions and social media, because racism is such a charged topic, we will advance our cause little by calling an action, a joke, or a Facebook or Twitter posting “racist.” The poster, holding a more traditional view of racism as intentionally harmful in some way, will deny racist intent, and a charge of racism will move the discussion into the original communicator’s attempts to avoid the charge of racism (or sexism, etc.), rather than addressing the specific policy, image, or statement. Instead, we might discuss and demonstrate through evidence the way that the policy or image excludes others based on race. Without invoking the “r-word,” we may have a better chance at engaging in dialogues about policies, laws, and communicative behaviors that exclude others.

Intersectionalities of Racism

As we have begun to notice, one thing that complicates the concept of racism is its overlap with other terms, such as prejudice (with racism being a subset of prejudice). So, although xenophobia and ethnocentrism are distinct and separate from racism, the “other” within these concepts is often articulated or perceived in terms of race. A focus on racism and antiracism, unfortunately, often excludes other bases of intolerance that may be even more prominent within a given area, such as religious intolerance, sexism, or heterosexism. At the same time, it is useful to see how racism intersects with and sometimes leads to other intolerances, all of which have received much thought in recent years.


In some cases, feminists and antiracists have been at odds, proponents of each claiming that their sphere of oppression is the one that merits the most attention. Feminism is defined as “the belief that men and women are equal and should have equal respect and opportunities in all spheres of life—personal, social, work, and public” (Wood, 2008, p. 324). Feminist communication research seeks to make the voices of women heard, to highlight their experiences within the social construction of gender, and “their experiences of oppression and of coping with and resisting that oppression” (Foss & Foss, 1994, p. 39). Recent feminists consider how patriarchy, or male power or hegemony over the realities and voices of women, is not something maintained only by men nor is it deliberate. Rather, it is held in place by systems often beyond the awareness of men and women, and consented to and participated in by women themselves (Zompetti, 2012). Each of these ideas could also apply to racism, revealing a similarity between sexism and racism. But racism and sexism are also joined in the experiences of women of color, whose specific life situations are not fully addressed by either antiracist efforts or feminism. Collins (1990), for example, argues that African American women in the United States live in a site of triple oppression—by race, sex, and class, with these oppressions articulated by both the dominant white community and within the black community.

Queer theory

Queer theory seeks to challenge the way in which society passes on heterosexuality as the norm. Warner (1991) sees oppression of gays and lesbians in every aspect of society and in “a wide range of institutions and ideology” (p. 5). But even more so, he feels that the academy’s silence regarding oppression of sexual identity participates in that oppression. Chávez (2013) supports this claim, noting that at the writing of her article, no major journal in the National Communication Association had devoted a full issue to queer studies. Again, recent scholars have been looking at the intersection of race and sexual orientation (Yep, 2013), such as the representations and experiences of older gay male adults, Latina lesbians, and transgender blacks.

Whiteness studies

Based on the early writings of Richard Dyer (1997) and Ruth Frankenberg (1993), researchers have highlighted the notion of whiteness—a hidden system of ideology and social structure that maintains whites in a position of advantage—but one that is often invisible to, and yet defended by, whites (Wander, Nakayama, & Martin, 1999). Whiteness studies call attention to areas of white privilege. “By exposing the ‘invisibility’ of whiteness, the study of whiteness helps us understand the way that white domination continues” (p. 22). A current search for “whiteness” in a communication library search engine reveals over 800 articles on the topic. Many of these are media studies on how whiteness is promoted and/or challenged in a wide variety of texts, including South Park, the Rush Hour movies, The Hunger Games, and Glee. But whiteness is also analyzed in areas of education, everyday language, and health and organizational communication, as well as in many different countries.


whiteness studies owe part of their heritage to postcolonialism, which has its own roots in the conceptualization of Orientalism by Edward Said (2003). Said analyzes European art and literature to reveal the construction of the Arab or Middle Easterner as “other.” He notes how the Western ideology of the East (referring to the Middle East) folklorizes and sexualizes Middle Easterners, treating them as backward, in a way that justifies European colonization and paternalism. Thousands of books now deal in some way with Orientalism, and Said’s notion of the “other” has become a stock theme in how we consider the racial other. For example, though not framed explicitly in Orientalism, James Baldwin’s famous 1955 essay “Stranger in the Village” talks about the rage of the black man as he confronts white America and the naiveté of whites—a naiveté that they work hard to preserve (thus relating Baldwin’s ideas to whiteness). When whites arrive in Africa, blacks are astonished:

The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence … The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable: the rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history.

Postcolonialism, building upon Orientalism, considers all locations where one nation or people group has colonized another group, considering the cultural, political, and social ramifications of that colonization and seeking to remedy social ills that it has brought about. Shome and Hegde (2002) call the approach “interventionist and highly political” (p. 250). Postcolonialism notes how much of the world is forced to work within thought systems created by the Western world (an effect only magnified through the rise of the internet and globalization). Postcolonial writers are often interested in issues such as migration of people groups (including diasporic groups); the hybrid (but power-laden) mixture of ideas, artifacts, and behaviors between cultures; the liminal spaces between cultures; and the imperialism of ideas (Bhabha, 1994). Thus, postcolonialism is inherently about prejudice and oppression beyond racism, though it also has links to racism specifically, as authors consider the ways that some have used racial categories to colonize others (e.g., see essays in Nakayama & Halualani, 2010).

Discrimination: Considering the Form(s) of Intolerance

As we have seen, it is difficult to discuss prejudice in general or racism specifically without moving into issues of institutionalized prejudice, media representations, school and government policies, and so on. In this sense, both prejudice and racism are intricately intertwined with discrimination. Discrimination specifically refers to “behavior that denies equal treatment to people because of their membership in some group” (Herbst, 1997, p. 185). It is based on the “beliefs, feelings, fantasies, and motivations of prejudice” (p. 185), but these mental or social concepts are not in themselves discrimination. Discrimination involves behavior.

Institutional Discrimination

When we think of institutional-level discrimination, many examples come to mind. These include things like not allowing certain groups housing or refusing other privileges, resources, or opportunities to them. At the writing of this chapter, a popular U.S. media topic is the county clerk, Kim Davis, who refused to give marriage licenses to gays or lesbians based on her faith, despite a state law that allowed her to do so. The Jim Crowe laws of the United States, which gave unequal educational and public access rights to blacks and whites is a classic example, with many facilities being for “whites only.” The website Global Issues (Shah, 2010) details instances of racism and racial discrimination around the world, such as racism against white farmers in Zimbabwe and discrimination against the Dalits—the “untouchables” in India.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing

At the extreme end of discrimination, we have genocide and ethnic cleansing. For example, around 1915, the Ottomon (Turkish) empire slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians (75% of the Turkish Armenian population). The Turkish government took Armenian (largely Christian) children and converted them, giving them to Islamic families. Even today, Turkey defends this “Turkification” of Turkey as a necessary act of war and has resisted the U.S. and other nations defining it as genocide (Armenian genocide, n.d.). Other genocides have occurred in Central Europe (the Holocaust) in the 1930s–1940s, Rwanda in 2003, Cambodia in the 1970s, and the Greek/Pontic genocide of World War I. Extreme discrimination includes hate crimes and overt hate groups. The introduction of this chapter noted the prevalence of hate crimes and hate groups within the United States and other nations.

Redlining and racial profiling

In many countries, overt forms of discrimination for many (but seldom all) groups have been outlawed. Institutional discrimination itself may take forms that are harder to name and prove, such as redlining, the process by which banks give fewer mortgages to people of color, based on the belief that they are less able to repay loans. Some real estate agents may steer people of color away from rentals in upscale neighborhoods; school advisers may tell people of color that their children are more suited for trade school rather than college or graduate school. In the United States in 2014–2015, there was a spate of cases surrounding potential police brutality against unarmed black men, leading to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There is also racial profiling, such as when police pay more attention to people of color, stopping and/or searching them more frequently than they do whites (what some people of color call “DWB” or “driving while black”). A growing and complex array of academic studies examine whether or not profiling exists and, if so, what its nature is (e.g., is it pro-white, or does it depend on the race of the officer?). A similar phenomenon experienced by many people of color is being followed through stores by security guards, regardless of their attire or appearance. Notably, some aspects of discrimination, such as redlining, might be done, at least in the minds of the banker, real estate agent, or high school counselor, without a notion of racial discrimination; but here, Miles’s (1989) notion of racism defined by exclusionary outcome would classify the behaviors as racist, as they exclude based on supposed biological differences.

Intolerant Communication

Redneck racism/prejudice

Central to our discussion is the way that discrimination and racism can occur through communicative behavior. Brislin (1991) outlined several forms of discriminatory communication. In addition to hate crimes and ethnic cleansing, he mentions redneck racism—the expression of blatant intolerance toward someone of another race. He applies these categories to racism, but we can apply them to any group. These might include jokes, statements (e.g., about the inferiority or backwardness of a group), or slurs or names for people of another group (also called ethnophaulisms). Conventional wisdom, for example, suggests that there are many more slurs for women then there are for men, and most of these have some sexual connotation.

Sometimes, the intolerance is slightly veiled though still present, as when we resort to “us/them” language or talk to someone from another group about “your people.” Brislin’s (1991) notion of arm’s-length prejudice occurs when someone voices tolerance for a group, typically of being accepting of them in the neighborhood or workplace, but wants to restrict them from closer relationships, such as marrying a family member (related to Bogardus’s notion of social distance; Allport, 1979). Prejudice might manifest in statements like “She’s very smart for an ‘X’” or “I have a friend who is a ‘Y,’ and he is very articulate,” since such statements assume that most Xs are not smart and most Ys are not articulate.

Prejudiced colloquialisms

Prejudice also manifests in our use of colloquialisms that play upon a particular aspect of identity or ability, such as calling something “lame” or “retarded.” Both the harm and use of such phrases has been established. For example, one study found that hearing the phrase “That’s so gay” made gays and lesbians feel less accepted in the university setting and, to a lesser degree, increased reported health problems. Over 45% of the participants had heard the word “gay” linked to something “stupid or undesirable” (Hall & LaFrance, 2012, p. 430) ten or more times within the last year. Hall and LaFrance (2012) find a complex interplay between identity—males’ endorsement of gender identity norms andthe desire to distance themselves from homosexuality, as well as the social norms around them, and their likelihood to use the expression.

Prejudice built into language

We might well say that intolerance can be embedded in every level of language. In one classic study, men interrupted women much more than women interrupted men. If women overlapped men, men continued their turn speaking, but if men interrupted women, women yielded their turn speaking (Zimmerman & West, 1975). Coates’s (2003) analysis of narratives told by men in mixed company (such as around the family dinner table) notes that men are both the target and subject of most stories, with dinner table discussion typically centering on patriarchal authority. Research has explored prejudice through verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward people of different ages, people with disabilities, people with different languages or dialects, and other groups, including much theory and research on how we adjust or do not adjust our behavior toward those we perceive to be of different groups (communication accommodation theory; Gallois, Ogay, & Giles, 2005) or how minority members must negotiate their communication with dominant group members because of contexts of power and prejudice (co-cultural theory; Orbe & Spellers, 2005).

Bar-Tal (1990) and Zur (1991) note the way that we use rhetoric to create a sense of others (i.e., to create the identity of the enemy in a way that then justifies discrimination) resonates with Burke’s (1967) analysis of Hitler’s rhetorical construction of the Jewish people. Collins and Clément (2012), summarizing research from a special 2007 issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology on language and discrimination up to the present, summarize the role of language as it pertains to prejudice:

Language is the primary means through which prejudice can be explicitly and implicitly communicated and is, therefore, a major contributor to its transmission and maintenance. But language can also play a more rooted and integral role in prejudice: changing perceptions by distorting the information it carries, focusing attention on social identities, and being a factor in the definition of group boundaries

(p. 389).

Intolerance gone underground: Subtle forms of prejudice

As early as the mid-1980s, authors began to argue that in Western societies, racism and other forms of intolerance were going underground (i.e., aware that the redneck varieties of intolerance were socially unacceptable, people expressed less overt intolerance but continued to show intolerance through racism in ways that were “subtle” and “everyday”—a new and modern racism). People might express such forms of racism (and by extension other intolerances) through nonverbal behaviors, such as placing change on the counter instead of in an outgroup member’s hand, or through subtle sayings and word usages that exclude or put down the other person in some way that is not clearly distinguishable as prejudice. In the new racism, minority groups are not spoken of as inferior but as “different,” “although in many respects there are ‘deficiencies,’ such as single-parent families, drug abuse, lacking achievement values, and dependence on welfare and affirmative action—‘pathologies’ that need to be corrected” (van Dijk, 2000, p. 34). Today, researchers and social activists refer to these subtle manifestations of prejudice as microagressions.

Symbolic racism is similar to subtle racism (Sears & Henry, 2005), though it relates more to political attitudes. Researchers have framed symbolic racism to include elements of anti-black sentiment hidden by political attitudes (e.g., that affirmative action has gone too far, that blacks are demanding too much; McConahay, 1986). Political research has a corollary in communication in that often, as whites talk about economic or political issues, there is at least a mental if not an explicit verbal coding of race or ethnic “othering.” International ownership of business becomes an issue when Japanese or Chinese companies start buying U.S. businesses, regardless of the large and long-term Dutch and English business holdings in America; discussions about welfare, gangs, and urban decay are often subtly about race. Similar verbal coding may also hold true with other identity groups.

Finally, in terms of face-to-face communication, researchers have explored the notion of “benevolent” intolerance. Discussions of things such as benevolent racism or sexism are often based on a larger notion of benevolent domination, whereby one nation or group seeks to dominate another, supposedly in its best interests (based on Rudyard Kipling’s notion of the “white man’s burden”). For example, Esposito and Romano (2014) contrast benevolent racism to other forms of post-U.S.-civil-rights forms of racism, such as laissez-faire racism, symbolic racism, and color-blind racism. Each might oppose affirmative action, for example, but for different reasons. Laissez-faire would oppose it based on ideas of meritocracy and free enterprise, blaming blacks themselves for lack of economic progress. Symbolic racism would hold that “the United States is a fair and equitable society where everyone has ample opportunity to succeed through hard work and talent” (p. 74), and that blacks who use the “race card” are hypersensitive—they are “too pushy, too demanding, too angry” (McConahay & Hough, 1976, p. 38). Color-blind racism starts with what seems to be a reasonable assumption, that all people are the same, but then moves to assume that lack of progress of minority members is due to their personal choices, low work ethic, or lack of ability, and ignores structural support for inequalities.

Benevolent racism has a long history, even into slavery, a time in which some whites felt they were doing blacks a favor by controlling them and “providing” for them. More recently, it involves a seemingly positive attitude toward blacks that then opposes any social reforms like affirmative action as belittling blacks and working against their natural progress as citizens (Esposito & Romano, 2014). Benevolent sexism holds the same basic idea: Rather than sexism being based on anti-woman attitudes, it can also be supported by putting women “on a pedestal,” characterizing them as “pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored, and whose love is necessary to make a man complete” (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 109). Extensive research has linked such benevolent ideas about women to negative outcomes for them.

Intolerance in the media and on the internet

Finally, many volumes have been written on the issues of stereotypes and intolerance in the media. This includes both social scientific work, such as the cultivation theory research that analyzes both representation of minorities in the media in different countries and the research that considers the effects of such representation. It also includes a wide array of critical and cultural analyses from the cultural studies school. Many of these analyses use the principles discussed—feminism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, whiteness, and so on. They work to demonstrate how the media systematically ignore, oversimplify, or negatively represent particular groups. One line of research in this field is the focus on the symbolic annihilation of race (Coleman & Chivers Yochim, 2008), which notes how, unlike stereotypes in the media that focus on the presence of some characteristic associated with a group, symbolic annihilation also considers “the meanings associated with absence, omission, or even inclusion that is not so obviously problematic (negative)” (p. 2), in terms of what such absences and seemingly benign images mean.

With the growth of the internet and video gaming, a final area of importance in understanding, researching, and working against prejudice includes all new media. The internet gives impetus for new research to understand hate groups on the media, flaming (e.g., in comments on video-hosting websites such as YouTube), and social media. We see examples of the use of social media for racist purposes in the flurry of racist twitters that followed the crowning of Nina Davuluri, an American of East Indian descent. Research considers both the presence of stereotypes in such media, as well as their effects.

The potential of communication

Unlike some early critical writers, who felt that media imagery (including new media) only produce and reproduce prevailing (prejudiced) ideologies, we must also consider the potential of face-to-face, mediated, and new media as places to challenge oppression. In terms of face-to-face communication, we can work through education to dispel stereotypes. That education can be simply on cultural differences and accomplishments, though changing cognitions alone may not change deeply felt affective prejudice, and only time (as more tolerant individuals assume positions of leadership) will lead to changes in discriminatory social structures. This is why some advocate for political education that addresses both personal and structural prejudice more directly, as well as political action and intervention in media systems.

Many scholars represent interpersonal contact as one of the best ways to address prejudice. Contact theory holds great potential for the planning of interventions to reduce intergroup tensions, as it describes how interpersonal contact with people from outgroups under the right conditions can work by changing both attitudes and affect, especially if people can see the other person as both a member of a new group while still recognizing their original group identity (Dovidio et al., 2003). Thomas Pettigrew (2016) outlines the history of research on authoritarianism (the desire and support for strong authority structures) and relative deprivation (the feeling that one’s group is disadvantaged in comparison to another group) as two of the main predictors of intergroup prejudice. He notes how, while personality factors like authoritarianism and cognitive rigidity are related to greater intolerance and make the likelihood of meaningful intergroup contact more unlikely, even in the presence of these variables, contact programs can have a positive effect for people with prejudice A meta-analysis of 515 contact studies suggests that contact works specifically by increasing knowledge of the other group, decreasing anxiety when one is with the other group, and increasing empathy for the other group (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008).

In terms of media, we see both a growth in the production of media that challenges and resists stereotypes, rigid gender constructions, and so on, as well as a growth of grassroots efforts to highlight such oppression. One such effort is the website Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a site composed of posts contributed by women who are stereotyped or verbally assaulted by men in video gaming websites, usually when the women have beaten them. The women are able to post comments made by other players, their own avatars, and even videos that the men sometimes send them. Efforts like these highlight forms of oppression that occur throughout the internet, but they also highlight the potential of the internet for addressing these forms of oppression in creative ways.


We have seen throughout this article that culture, prejudice, racism, and discrimination are related in complicated ways. Some people even see the characteristics of a particular culture (e.g., mainstream America’s conception of male and female beauty, the definition of a “good” education, or the focus on individualism) as negotiated between people with economic and power interests. Cultures (using the term much more widely than “nation”) are always ethnocentric, with individuals sometimes being xenophobic. But these forms of intolerance are frequently linked to other forms of intolerance—religious, racial, ethnic, and otherwise. Prejudice, most technically, is an affect—a desire to avoid someone because of her or his group, as opposed to stereotypes, which are more cognitive associations with a group—and efforts to reduce prejudice should focus on both affect and cognition. But intolerance is also clearly linked to higher-order manifestations of prejudice, such as discrimination through legal and organizational policies, symbolic annihilation of groups in the media, and everyday forms of discrimination, be they overt or subtle. More likely, communicative and policy forms of prejudice (and their manifest effects in terms of housing, education, job opportunities, and so on) “create” prejudicial perceptions, which in turn create the conditions of discrimination. Racism serves as an example—but only one of many—of the links among attitude, communicative action, policy, and social structure. With this complex view in mind, we can see that any attempts to redress or ameliorate racism or any other intolerance must include not only education, or even merely a wide array of communicative responses (media and face-to-face), but also efforts at addressing social inequalities at the structural and policy levels.

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