In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Racism and Prejudice
  • Racial Stereotypes
  • Racial Discrimination and Systems of Power
  • Color Blindness verses Multiculturalism
  • How to Manage the “Race” Problem

Psychology Race
Kira Hudson Banks, Richard Harvey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0137


Within psychology, race is generally accepted as a social construct that is shaped by power structures and prevailing norms; yet historically, the field included an essentialist view of race interpreting racial differences as fixed. Research suggests that there is more genetic variation within groups than across groups, leaving the argument that race is purely a scientific construct debunked. Therefore, examining how the field of psychology has and continues to navigate the construct of race, and how individuals perceive and experience race, discrimination, and racism, is of great importance. Racial groups vary by nation but in the United States are thought of as European or white American, African American, Asian and Asian Pacific Islander American, Latino, and Native American. Even though people are asked to check boxes with these labels, these racial groups are not clearly discrete but rather multidimensional and overlapping. The terminology is imperfect and fluid. Many psychologists have urged the use of “ethnicity” over “race” to create distance from the way race has been misused historically, while others are adamant they remain distinct terms. This argument is relevant, because these terms are distinct. A person can have both a race and an ethnicity. Ethnicity refers more specifically to ethnic, cultural, and sometimes national origin. Regardless of the terms used, our perceptions of phenotypical traits that might cluster by race and the implications of our social groupings are laden with prejudice, stereotypes, and unconscious bias, which we pick up from our environment (e.g., people, media, socialization, experiences). Racial identity, or how one thinks about themselves with regard to race, how one is socialized around race, and experiences of discrimination or racism, can also influence how one sees and experiences the world. Research has found that the experience of being a member of a racial group is not monolithic. Therefore, researchers are urged not to use racial designations as an explanation for behavior. Racial categories are markers for more meaningful constructs, which should be measured. A selection of some of those constructs is discussed in sections below. For example, cultural neuroscience is an emerging area of research that will inform future questions. Overall, researchers and consumers of research are cautioned against assuming that racial differences are immutable or innate characteristics of research participants or, by extension, members of the racial groupings. Recognizing that the construction of race occurs within a social construct carries with it acknowledgment that ingroups have power, which impacts intergroup dynamics and perceptions of experiences. Furthermore, the field must find a way through the complexities of race rather than assuming a color-blind, minimization of race, stance. That approach oversimplifies the construct of race and has been found to fall short in improving intergroup interactions and decreasing inequities.

General Overviews

These selections provide overviews of the topic of and experience of race. The American Psychological Association (APA) has a topic page on Race that provides a compilation of general information and resources on race. Guthrie 2004 provides a historical look at psychology prior to the recent foci on race and the creation of societies focused on racial and ethnic groups. Markus and Moya 2010 presents a more personal collection of stories. Johnson 2006 offers a hybrid in that the book has extensive examples and personal stories, yet it is well researched with historical and current analyses. The PBS series Race: The Power of an Illusion offers three videos that walk the viewer through historical and present-day definitions of race and the implications of the ways it has been framed. Ponterotto, et al. 2009 is more geared toward introducing the topic of race and culture to graduate students in psychology.

  • Guthrie, R. V. 2004. Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. 2d ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    In-depth, cross-disciplinary, historical exploration of race in the field of psychology. The false interpretations of data based on skull structure are an example of the misgivings outlined. The text is a must-read for any history of psychology course or graduate student.

  • Johnson, A. 2006. Privilege, oppression, and difference. In Privilege, power, and difference. 2d ed. By A. Johnson, 12–38. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    Strong text for undergraduates or graduates being introduced to the concept of race. The examples are accessible, and the historical information is compelling and helpful if students are encouraged to generate connections between the text and their lives.

  • Markus, H. R., and P. M. L. Moya, eds. 2010. Doing race: 21 essays for the 21st century. New York: W. W. Norton.

    A collection of everyday stories about how race and ethnicity play into life experiences. Serves as a solid undergraduate or entry-level text.

  • Ponterotto, J. G., J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, and C. M. Alexander. 2009. Handbook of multicultural counseling. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A classic text that is used by many graduate programs. The text offers frameworks for research, theory and therapy, and assessment across cultures.

  • Psychology Topics: Race. American Psychological Association.

    The site offers a number of statements put forward by the APA in addition to a link to an annotated bibliography. Links to articles about race in some of the APA’s publications are also included.

  • Race: The Power of an Illusion. California Newsreel.

    Online companion to a three-part series that explores race in society, history, and science. The films are accessible for advanced middle school or high school yet still informative for an older audience.

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