Cognitive Dissonance: The Intersection Between Psychology and Racism

By: Shreya Jaldu and Ragini Srinivasan

Let’s begin with a little game — nothing scary or difficult, I promise. Consider the following questions:

  1. Do you love your parents?
  2. Do you care about animals?
  3. Do you think lying is bad?

Now consider this next set of questions:

  1. Have you ever talked back to your parents or taken them for granted?
  2. Have you ever eaten meat?
  3. Have you ever lied to someone?

How do you feel right now? Uncomfortable? Awkward? Guilty? You are feeling what is known as cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort we feel when our actions and thoughts contradict one another.

According to this psychological theory, when we feel this dissonance, we will do everything in our power to reduce or eliminate it, usually in one of three ways:

  1. Change our thoughts to match our actions.
  2. Pretend that the conflict does not exist (in other words, denial).
  3. Change our actions to match our thoughts (least common but generally the most effective method).

If you’re still a little confused on this concept, let me present to you one more case: Do you believe that racism and anti-blackness are societal issues that must be addressed? Before the cases of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, did you take any concrete action to address these issues (reading books, learning about police brutality, starting conversations, emailing politicians, etc.)?

If you answered yes to both of the questions, thank you, and you may exit this article if you so wish. If not, please continue.

This is a clear example of cognitive dissonance, as it portrays a misalignment between our actions and our thoughts. Several companies are driven to have higher profits; influencers are flooding for clout; members of society want to send the message that they fully support social justice causes. But do these people actually add value to the Black Lives Matter movement?

More thoughtful consideration of Black Lives Matter requires that we change our motivations and realize what our actions are really going towards. Performative activism, while it may have good intentions, is ineffective and done for all the wrong reasons. A prominent example is the hashtag #blackouttuesday, in which people flooded social media with a picture of a black square to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. But in doing so, we minimize racism to a trend on Instagram. The African-American community has spoken out against this trend and explained how it is simply reducing the voices of far more important causes. As of June 4th, 2020, 28 million people had used the hashtag #blackouttuesday; however, there were only 14 million petition signatures for the death of George Floyd. It takes the same amount of time to type your name and email as it does to screenshot and post a black image. But one is simply performative and does not make an impact.

In the midst of a pandemic, it is easy to feel helpless. But we urge you all to recognize that there are countless ways we can still show our active, and not just passive, support. The first step is to become educated on the topic. Racism is not something that we are born with; it is something that we are taught from society. This means we have the power to change this mentality and educate others. As we sit at home, we can use the resources around us to further our understanding of societal issues: articles showcasing the perspectives of various cultures; documentaries streamed on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Youtube, TedTalks; podcasts highlighting the voices of black activists. Our privileges come with access to these resources, and we must take advantage of them. In addition, we can do any of the following, along with so much more:

  1. Sign Petitions — Apart from the most notable death of George Floyd, there are numerous other victims whose causes we can support.
  2. Donate Money — Talk to your family and see how much of your own money is feasible to donate. If your employer has a matching program, use it. You can also email your company’s leaders to encourage them to donate, as their donation could be significantly greater than what you as an individual could give.
  3. Reach out to schools/companies/non-profit organizations — Make a convincing case for them to use their platform and strength in numbers to lure in a larger audience for us to educate.
  4. Email your state officials — This is a direct message to the people who can enact policy and lead systemic, long-lasting change.
  5. Reach out to the African-American community — Check in with them to see how they are doing: no act of kindness ever goes unnoticed.

Systemic action is imperative, but the first step is individual change. We tend to show an attitude of scorn towards the idea that we as individuals can’t make a difference. However, when everybody is repeatedly told this idea by society, nobody will take any action. And, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more we feed into this mentality, the truer it becomes, and the more it hinders our power and strength. So we urge you to take a step back, reflect on what our world has come to, question everything around you, and make change to correct it.

It should not be instilled in us that our color affects our status or worth in any way, shape, or form. Why is it that companies in India and South Korea advertise Fair & Lovely, a bleaching cream that lightens one’s skin? It is to send the message that light skin and eurocentric features make someone more privileged in society, that white equals good and black equals bad. Why is it that the word “fair” used to mean “light-skinned” and “beautiful”? It is to equate having lighter skin to not just being more attractive but also being fairer, kinder, and a better person (a clear example of the logical fallacy false equivalence). Why is it that we see preschoolers and infants imagining a more united society than we are? It is only later in life, as we grow up, that society suppresses us and teaches us this harmful behavior.

We owe it to future generations to restore the peace and harmony amongst our community and break all stereotypes. Don’t stop educating others. Don’t stop fighting once all of the petitions reach their goal. Don’t stop using your platform to preach what you believe. Even though this movement caught the most attention this year, cases of police brutality, lynching, and racism like this have been occurring for years and decades and centuries and millennia. Don’t let it lose its light, and don’t lose sight of the power of our voices, platforms, and morals.