Why do we hate?

Illustration by Sarah Covey

Charlottesville. Orlando. Ferguson.

These modern-day, blatant acts of racism and white supremacy — akin to those of the civil rights era — elevated the national debate surrounding hate. They forced Americans to again confront two uncomfortable questions: Why do we hate? And how do we stop it?  

It’s easy to isolate our country’s hate problem to the overtly hateful moments seen at Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacy rally, Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting and Ferguson’s race riots, sparked by the police slaying of the unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. But researchers say it’s the less obvious, internalized aspects of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia that are keeping hate — and the systems of oppression that fuel them — alive in the United States.

And while we all have been taught to hate, historians and social psychologists say our society can overcome it, eventually, if we disregard our comfort bubbles and actively address the internal biases we all have.

“There becomes this false binary, that if you’re not a grand wizard of the KKK, you’re not a racist,” says Nolan Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who specializes his research in whiteness and race. “And that’s just not true.”


There are two aspects of human nature to think about when we talk about hate and why we hate. There’s the side that has more to do with how our society was built to work, and there’s the side that deals more with how our brains work.

On the sociological side of things: Cabrera says our society’s self-established dominant group — white men — socially constructed methods of hate, like racism, in order to oppress anyone who wasn’t white or male. They created a social majority and minority: with the majority being them, and the minority being everyone else.

These social constructs, he says, explain why white people intrinsically think they are superior to black and brown folks, why men think they’re smarter than women, why people tend to be weary of those from different cultures than their own. They built the hateful systems of oppression that still plague the country, Cabrera says — because dehumanizing any non-white, non-male people effectively gave the majority the green light to discriminate against “minority” groups.

“The racist ideas followed the policies, not the other way around,” he says. “We had this economic system based upon the free labor of enslaved Africans and taking lands from Native Americans. And then the racial ideologies, the racial thoughts, followed it. And so it kind of required us to dehumanize [non-white people], in order to engage in dehumanizing actions.”

And even if you say you don’t have a racist bone in your body, Cabrera says that — thanks to the social norms white men established so many years ago — you kind of do. Even if you don’t realize it.

“It’s not that we’re sitting there consciously thinking [racist, sexist, xenophobic] things. It’s that it’s a message, and we’re receiving it,” he says. “And when people haven’t dealt with their own internalized xenophobia and racism, it’s very easy to create a scapegoat out of the racialized other. ”

So: even if you would call yourself a “woke,” or socially conscious, person — you check your privilege and evaluate your own internalized biases against people of color, women, LBGTQ people, immigrants, etc. — you still might subconsciously discriminate against them.  

Cabrera says these less overt manifestations of hate — not the extremist ones displayed by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis — are what keep systems of oppression alive.

This is where human psychology plays into the hate equation, according to Alyssa Croft, director of the social roles and identity lab at the UA’s psychology department. Croft says all humans, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation, form stereotypical attitudes about different groups of people — even the ones they are part of.

That’s because of a single, powerful psychological phenomenon: categorizing.

“It’s how we organize and make sense of our world,” Croft says. “And forming these categories also applies to groups of people. So we pretty much automatically categorize people into different social groups. Men and women, black and white — things that are easily categorized based on visual cues — without actually knowing people or talking to them.”

Croft says categorizing groups of people can fuel hateful attitudes about minority groups because of the social constructs Cabrera explained earlier. Let’s look at racism, for example. All white people subconsciously develop prejudiced or hateful beliefs about people of color because social race constructs taught them to believe they were better than black and brown folks. And black and brown folks can hold racist beliefs about their own groups for the same reason — because they grew up as marginalized people, in our society’s view.

Humans can also develop discriminatory beliefs, Croft says, because of the environments in which they’re raised. Everyone categorizes groups of people, yes — but the way in which they perceive members of each category depends somewhat on the principles they were (actively or inactively) taught to value.

If one white person, for example, raised their kid to value racial equality, that kid is probably less likely to express racist beliefs or actions later in life than a white kid who grew up in a home where their parents regularly used the n-word, Croft says. And people of color are probably going to be more weary of trusting white folks, right off the bat, because of the discrimination white people — even if indirectly — have caused them to experience, throughout history.

Humans also tend to automatically put members of their respective groups on a pedestal — something called in-group preference, Croft says — and to generalize members of out-groups as “all the same.”

“And those are kind of the ingredients that can lead to racist behaviors and discrimination,” she says.

Croft says it’s important to note that humans’ capacity to hate isn’t woven into their genetic code. A recent study from UA’s Eller College of Management found that humans actually learn to distrust others. They aren’t born to hate — they’re taught to hate. For example, she says there is no “racism gene.” But some researchers suggest people might as well be born with one, if they’re parents raise them to call black people the n-word and Mexicans bad hombres.

“It may be that attitudes get transmitted from parents to kids by nonverbal behaviors, or things they say or just general ways of being in the world that is being modeled from parents to kids,” Croft says.

David Sterman, a terrorism researcher at the nonpartisan think tank New America, says there is no exact formula, though, that can accurately predict whether an average person will radicalize their discriminatory beliefs.

He has been studying terrorism for 20 years, and says he has yet to identify what exactly indicates someone will join a radicalized hate group.

“Overall, there doesn’t see to be a particular person the radical ideology appeals to,” Sterman says. “Lots of people have radical beliefs. The better question to ask is: why did they, individually, choose to join a radicalized group?”

Scott Shepherd is an anti-white supremacy activist based in Memphis, Tennessee, but was once a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. He says many factors contributed to why he dedicated 20 years of his life to radical hate — most notably, among them, his abusive childhood, and his own self-hate.

Shepherd grew up in Mississippi — what he calls “the KKK’s backyard.” He says he joined the Klan because, in a nutshell, he hated everything about himself. He wanted to join a hate group because hate groups, in their nature, valued the darkness he felt permeating his life.

“That’s where I channeled all that negative energy, all those negative thoughts,” he said. “I didn’t like myself or anyone else. I could have gotten involved in ISIS, if that had been there.”


Cabrera says one Texas A&M researcher, Joe Phegen, equates racism, as privileged white people experience it, to alcoholism.

“He makes the argument that you never actually fully recover from it,” Cabrera says. “There are steps you get toward recovering, but the second you start thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, I’m a really good white person, I’ve worked through my racism’ — that’s the second you’re going to relapse into old habits.”

Cabrera says that in order to break down our society’s hate-fueled systems of oppression, all people — not just whites — need to actively address that they have internalized biases, even if it makes them uncomfortable. And, in their attempts to rethink their core attitudes about marginalized people, they need to realize something really important.

To paraphrase Cabrera: You’re never going to completely “get over” your racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., beliefs.

“It took hundreds of years to build the system to the way it is now — we’re not going to erase it in 10 years of good work,” he says.

So how do we, then, slowly but surely, break down the system? Cabrera says people, firstly, have to be willing to accept the fact that prejudiced ideas affect their world view, even if they would rather not admit it. He says people should call out acts of discrimination when they see them, but in an educational way — not in a “you filthy racist!” kind of way. He says when calling someone out, in most cases, it’s important to distinguish that the act itself was racist — not the person.

“If you start going down the ‘dude, you’re a racist,’ hole, that shuts down any discussion or conversation. You have the what-they-did, as opposed to the who-they-are conversation,” Cabrera says.

Croft says people seeking to reduce their internal biases can actively choose to override their discriminatory attitudes by reflecting on thoughts that could have, say, racist undertones. She says taking a marginalized person’s perspective, or trying to mentally walk a mile in their shoes, can also help reduce internal bias.

Croft adds that it’s more difficult for white, straight men — people who have no concept of what it’s like to experience discrimination solely because of their race, gender or sexual orientation — to overcome their own internalized biases.

“It’s going to be harder for people who have no concept of what it’s like to be discriminated against to take the perspective of someone who is being discriminated against,” she says. “But that’s not to say it’s impossible.”

Shepherd says he decided to leave his life of hate because he was pulled over by a cop. He had been drinking and police arrested him for a driving under the influence, carrying an unauthorized weapon and possessing marijuana. But instead of getting jail time, a judge ordered Shepherd to attend a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

At rehab, Shepherd says he met a diverse group of people — women and men of different races and sexual orientations. Listening to these people’s stories, being vulnerable with them and becoming close with them completely challenged and changed the way he lived his life.

“I went into treatment one person and came out another,” he said. “I found these people I had hated really weren’t that different than me.”

Scott Shepherd poses for a picture with the woman who raised him, Rebecca Scott Hawkins. Shepherd says he was named after Hawkins. Photo courtesy of Scott Shepherd.

He renounced the KKK and pledged to advocate for civil rights, and to, more specifically, challenge other racists to rethink their views. He reconnected with the black woman who raised him, he started an anti-racism blog. He made a Twitter handle: @ReformedRacist.

Shepherd’s story is an anomaly, Cabrera says. But it doesn’t have to be forever. There are, as he says, cracks in the dam. But those cracks — increased social commentary in movies and TV, increased interest in social justice, etc. — will mean nothing, he says, if people continue to ignore hate’s grip on the United States.

“[People think] if we ignore racism, it will go away,” Cabrera says. “No. If I go to the doctor, and he says I have cancer, I’m not going to think that magically, just over time, this is going to leave my body. You have to actually do something about that diagnosis.

“We will have truly made racial progress,” Cabrera adds, “when a black man who is as incompetent as Trump can be president.”

Brenna Bailey is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism within the University of Arizona. Contact her at brennabailey@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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