From the game of football to the psychology of racism

When racism overtakes sportsmanship

As a person who has no special interest in football or any other sports, I sat down a few Sundays ago to watch England bring back home the European Championship trophy after a long wait of 55 years. The attention this final attracted was immense and people united in hope after the numerous lockdowns we have endured as a nation. But, as we all know, things don’t always go in life as we expect them to go and in this case England did not win the UEFA Cup.

Looking beyond the football match, however, what captured my attention was the psychology of competition/winning and how racism becomes the reaction to losing.

In this instance, England’s loss was not met with acceptance and three of the players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka (accidentally people of colour) were blamed for England’s loss and exposed to online racial abuse. It was painful to see how these footballers were targeted and treated like outsiders by the England’s supporters despite the fact that they have dedicated their lives to the team.

Naturally, this incident brought sadness in many people’s hearts and reopened the old conversation of racism, prompting an answer to the question of why racist incidents continue to happen.

Understanding the psychology of racism 

American Psychologist Gordon Allport has developed a theory to explain why prejudice, discrimination and racism perpetuate within a society and how we can combat it.

Prejudice is defined as an “unjustifiable and irrational negative evaluations towards individuals from other social groups” (Friske, Gilbert & Gardener, 2010). Discrimination however is the inappropriate treatment of individuals who belong to a specific social group. This can include micro-aggressions of an overt and covert nature where some people manifest conscious or unconscious bias towards people that are different from them. Racism is exactly that: prejudice and discrimination directed towards a social group based on beliefs about one’s own racial superiority. Racism also incorporates the belief that race reflects inherent differences in capabilities and attributes.

Allport (1954) argues that prejudice, discrimination and racism stems from something that is deeply ingrained in the human psychology. He believes that all humans use stereotyping as a normal cognitive function to process information in a process he called “The least effort principle”. This principle proposes that an individual’s visual appearance or name may be used to make a quick judgement and stereotype an individual. He argues that individuals use this process to make decisions all the time even if this is not a reasonable or accurate way to make decisions.

The “least effort principle” has been demonstrated numerous times in our post-modern society and might explaine why an individual will cross the road to avoid an individual of a different race, religion, or culture. Since this principle is ingrained in our thinking and behaviour, we all need to raise awareness and take action to minimise racism and avoid situations where people are targeted for their difference.

Challenging and reducing racism 

In their studies Allport and Hodson (2011) found evidence to suggest that individuals who hold high levels of prejudice should try to engage with individuals that they feel biased against. They found that when individuals had contact with a social group much different than their own it significantly reduced their levels of anxiety and prejudice. Their research enabled those with prejudiced and racist views to experience positive experiences with individuals who they deemed to be the ‘out-group’.

This research highlights that racism can be minimised by sharing and conversing with those who are different from ourselves. The racist incidents that have occurred during the Euro cup final this year should not be allowed to divide us, but to highlight that we must open our minds and hearts to connection, acceptance and tolerance.

Written by – Romani Reid

Photo by – Thomas Serer, Unsplash

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