Why People Discriminate
© 25 Jul 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Reflections on eight years of diversity promotion.


When I began my Ph.D. studies, I selected as my advisor the kindest person I could find who met the following characteristics:

I was 100% pleased with the results; James Cohoon is one of the best people I have ever known, and I have no regrets. But it did mean that I dropped in to two areas of research almost blind: the area that became my dissertation, of which I will say nothing here, and the area of diversity.

I grew up like, I think, most middle-class white male Americans: I was not bigoted, but I also thought that diversity advocacy was odd. Wasn’t a fair, unbiased world one were you simply ignored issues of gender and race entirely? When I went to the first diversity workshop Jim and his wife Joanne put on I expected the message to be essentially “‍stop being a bigot‍” and not to apply to me at all. That all changed quite rapidly.

My goal in this post is not to describe all I know about diversity now. I might post about that later, but not here. However, some context might be useful. A very rough outline runs as follows:

In short, I learned that diversity was far more than just curing bigots.

Over the coming years I learned more about these topic and have taught hundreds of teachers what I have learned. This exposure to many people led me to realize that there are many nuances to discrimination. The diversity of discriminators was not something I have ever seen written about, so I decided to write this post.

“‍Is‍” bigots

Some people genuinely believe that forces of genetics render some people worse at some fields than others. These range from almost laughably extreme Nazi-like “‍one race to rule them all‍” views to almost self-evident observations about biology such as “‍males have more muscle mass than females.‍”

I am surprised how little has been published suggesting biological differences in aptitude or approach in almost any intellectual field. Even if there are no differences at all, the generally accepted 95% confidence interval suggests that about 5% of studies should assert falsehoods; there enough people who want to see these results that I’d expect those falsehoods to sell well. However, studies showing biological differences in cognitive ability are few in number and most of those I have read have been so dubiously performed as to be hard to trust.

Whatever the truth may be, I have found that “‍is‍” bigots are rare in the college-educated slice of the U.S. population. I hear rumors they are more common in other demographies and countries Aside: one of the things I have found when working with people from other countries is they tend to castigate the U.S. as being extremely bigoted toward blacks, but they also tend to have some group they are more bigoted about, sometimes even to the degree of it being politically correct to state that said group is subhuman.
    I wish it were not so. If the U.S. were unusually bigoted I would have more hope that bigotry could be eradicated. Alas, while bigotry is on the decline, it still appears to be common to every society.

“‍Ought‍” bigots

Another form of bigotry is based not on “‍people like me are superior‍” but rather “‍people like me should be superior.‍” Again, there is a wide range of severity of this view but I am have come to be surprised how very common one version of it is: the “‍keep jobs in my community/state/country‍” mantra. There seems to be a widespread, perhaps even innately human, sense of competition, an urge to protect the resources and opportunities of ones’ own community from others.

Where this urge takes on the name bigotry is typically when it shifts from protecting those you know to protecting a small subset of those you know. From cliques and clubs to hate crimes and genocide, many forms of bigotry are based on “‍us vs. them‍” rather than “‍us better than them‍”

Homogeneity Advocates

In general, it is easier to communicate with people who are similar to yourself. It tends to be easier to find enjoyable social activities, shared jokes, etc. too. Thus, some people want a homogeneous group for its own sake.

I have read a lot of research that suggests that homogeneous groups are less productive, less versatile, and in some studies even less intelligent than heterogeneous groups. There seems to be a fairly strong business case for diversity. That said, the argument “‍I want to work with my friends‍” is hard to counter, and indeed is part of the case being made by diversity advocates too: often I hear minorities in various fields essentially say “‍I want to work with people like me,‍” and then hear their employers say very much the same thing with selecting majority hires instead.

“‍Choice‍” bigots

A third kind of overt bigotry is based not on biology or superiority but rather on choice. Religion and lifestyle are the usual targets of this: because you chose X you either must have already been or have consequently been brainwashed into becoming, worse than people like me.

Although there is room within this form of bigotry for rational, defensible positions I find that they are almost never present. In my experience, bigotry based on other’s choices almost always hides some mix of insularity (“‍ought‍” bigotry) and cliquishness (homogeneity advocacy).

Uneducated Masses

In my experience, the vast majority of individuals whom I would identify as propagating inequality and discrimination are doing so unintentionally. Even efforts to actively promote diversity often backfire due to lack of understanding of the forces at work. I have heard well-meaning people say something like “‍our highest score came from name, a minority group!‍” thinking that they are undermining bigotry when the predominant messages are instead “‍this group is different and noteworthy‍” and “‍it is surprising when people in this group excel.‍”

There are many, many unwittingly bad things that people do, so many that even when we run three-day twenty-hour workshops on the topic we still have to leave out a lot due to lack of time. To my way of thinking, these are the places were diversity efforts have the highest yield: not changing hearts or minds (which is hard) but educating those with good desires but poor skills.


The last group of discriminators I will mention are the counter-bigots, those who appear to discriminate against the majority. If I hear people upset with diversity advocates, this is almost always their first argument: “‍I’m age/color/ethnicity/gender/religion-blind; it’s the bleeding-heart-X’s who are discriminating against me!‍”

First, let me say that this perception usually seems to arise from lack of education and incorrect perspective. When one person is aware of the negative forces exerted by “‍the system‍” and another is not, it is common for compensatory measures of the one to be seen as favoritism by the other. And, to be fair, striking the right balance is not easy. It’s not like we can just turn off years of implicit societal messages of inadequacy; what is the right set of actions to counterbalance that extra stress and lack of hope?

However, I do rarely find actual counter-bigots, people who, if given the chance, would wave a magic wand and make the field for which they advocate filled entirely with people in the group for whom they advocate. Let me emphasize rarely: I have been to gatherings of hundreds of leaders in diversity advocacy, entire conference centers populated almost entirely by people who have devoted their lives and fortunes to expanding the representation of one group or another in one field or another; and out of all of the hundreds of diversity advocates I have met, I can think of only three actual counter-bigots.

Clumsy Advocates

The last group I want to mention are well-meaning but sadly inept diversity advocates. They are trying to do right by diverse groups, they are often within such a group and may even have been well educated in what they ought to do, but they just aren’t good at it.

When I was an undergraduate student in college, I took a lot of courses in stereotypically-male fields …and some in stereotypically-female fields, too, but those courses don’t figure into this story. . One of the departments I took courses in had a single female faculty member who was an earnest and educated advocate for gender equality in the field she taught. Unfortunately, she was very bad at teaching. She was evidently a very bright, competent researcher; she was undoubtedly passionate and kind and willing to go out of her way to help her students; but she was one of the least skilled teachers I have ever met. The net impact of diversity, effort, and failure was a subconscious message: even the best, most devoted Superlatives like “‍best‍” and “‍most‍” are easy to arrive at when your sample size is one.
    The male bad teachers I had in that field were in a pool with male good teachers, giving my subconscious evidence that bad teaching was not caused by maleness. All of the characteristics of the single female teacher I had there became associated with “‍all female teachers in the field‍” because she was the only one I knew.
    That pressure to represent an entire population is commonly felt by members of under-represented groups and is a source of stress that can significantly distract from the tasks at hand and impede performance. This is one of the postulated sources of the Stereotype Threat phenomenon.
females in this field are worse than any of the males. I did not actually believe this, even in the moment, with my conscious mind; but it was hard to counteract the impact of this implicit, subconscious message. Even today, a decade later after having met several outstanding female teachers in that field, I still find that every time I meet a female teacher in that field my subconscious brain just supplies “‍bad teacher‍” automatically.

There is also a systemic force that creates an disproportional number of bad diversity role models. Most people, when culture and society and teachers and peers all provide constant messages along the lines of “‍you don’t fit in here‍”, will leave. Thus, most of the people who don’t leave are not like most people. Good role models seems relatable, achievable, like the people who are looking up to them. A disproportionate number of diverse leaders in any field are not that kind of person.

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