Last week, I arrived in the UK with my family from a holiday in America before subsequently flying back home to Kenya. I looked down at my Twitter feed and immediately needed to sit down. I gazed in shock and seething anger that the President of the United States had called Haiti, El Salvador, and all of Africa “s**thole countries”.
Once our rage subsides, let us examine how someone could possibly psychologically hold such a stunning bias and misconception.
Social science research shows us how stereotypes and biases form through a process called Social Identity Theory famously formulated by Henri Tajfel and John Turner.
Humans go through a comparative process whereby we compare ourselves to other people. We search for others who seem like us.
Similarities may include income levels, geographic location, parental lineage, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, gender, religion, physical size, attractiveness, individual history and profession.
As people start to notice and form categories of these differences, the individual then begins to assign traits to members of those categories. Examples might include: Dutch people are tall, British talk sternly, and Kenyans work hard.
Humans assign both positive as well as negative traits to those we categorise in our minds.
Once the person assigns the traits, they then assign other individuals they meet to that category and the traits in the category. So, if someone had classified the Dutch as tall, then they would expect every Dutch person to be vertically large. Once the traits are psychologically assigned, even if the person meets a short Dutch individual, they still retain their bias even when contrary evidence clearly exists before their eyes. Humans screen out inconsistent information that goes against our biases.
Inasmuch, President Trump clearly classified us in Africa as a unique category of individual. He then psychologically assigned negative traits about Africa and people from the continent.
Next, he put us all jumbled into one category as “people from s**thole countries”. While psychologically everyone holds biases and stereotypes, it becomes disturbing when highly educated people fail to notice their own biases and neglect to make corrections.
Stereotypes become stronger and more solidified when someone has less interaction with a particular group of people.
Disturbingly, it shows that President Trump likely spent very little time with Africans or on the African continent in order for him to form such a strong stereotype in the first place or to keep holding the stereotype. A lack of exposure to Africans increased his bias against us.
Another way that the American President might have formed stereotypes against Africans could originate from a conflict with people from Africa. Prejudices often begin after sustained quarrels.
However, in all of President Trump’s speeches, he rarely mentions interactions with Africans.
So, it leads the keen observer to presume that the lack of exposure to Africans caused his bias against us and not from a former prolonged confrontation. We see other biases that he holds against his former allies: liberal Americans. Following longstanding attacks on him in reaction to his behaviour during President Obama’s administration, President Trump now stereotypes liberals and American Democrats negatively based on those past confrontations.
As a modern manager in today’s Kenya, what unfounded stereotypes might you hold against people of different ethnicities, ages, genders, or religions? Do you think like President Trump and erroneously lump everyone in one of your psychological categories as having the same traits?
Let us first recognise that we hold biases.
Second, let us identify the stereotypes that we do hold.
Third, let us then see each employee as a unique individual without biased lenses and give everyone a fair shot in interviews, promotions, and reviews. Do not do to others what President Donald Trump has done to us.
Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected], or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor