Assumptions about Racial Characteristics – a recipe for prejudice

“Is it wrong to note 100m winners are always black?”

I start by saying that this is not my phrase, but the headline question of Matthew Syed, former UK professional table tennis player and now BBC journalist who also writes in The Times. Perhaps before reading the blog, I ask you to spend a few minutes reading Mr Syed’s excellent article (just follow this link).

He presents facts to answer the question which are undeniable, but like all statistics need to be analysed a little more closely before a conclusion can be reached. The figures state that with the exception of one athlete, all the finalists in the last ten 100 metre World Championships have been black – compelling evidence indeed that might lead us to believe that black people make faster sprinters. Furthermore, he goes on to say that Kenyan athletes have won 63 medals at the Olympic Games in middle and long distance racing (with 21 gold) since 1968, suggesting further evidence about black people and running. I can add that, during the same period, Ethiopian runners have also amassed 36 medals for similar races.

Hopefully, by now you will have read the article, because it goes on to disprove the hypothesis. It warns us from jumping to the apparently obvious conclusion and proposes that this is a symptom of the ongoing racism that still exists in our society. Perhaps here I should quote the article

“Imagine a similar argument using the Central African Bambuti, a black tribe more commonly known as Pygmies. With an average height of 4ft we could assert that the Bambuti are naturally better at walking under low doors. Would it be legitimate to extrapolate that black people in general have a natural advantage at walking under low doors?

“Our tendency to generalise rests on a deeper fallacy – the idea that “black” refers to a genetic type. We put people of dark skin in a box labelled black and assume that a trait shared by some is shared by all.

“The truth is rather different. There is far more genetic variation within racial groups (around 85%) than there is between racial groups (just 15%). Indeed, surface appearance is often a highly misleading way of assessing the genetic distance between populations”.

Even though evidence is there to suggest that black athletes make faster runners, we must be watchful about making an assumption that black people (all) are faster runners than white people (all). If we do that, we expose ourselves to the risk of making other incorrect assumptions about genetic and racial characteristics. By so doing, we certainly will be reinforcing the stereotypes that plague our societies and often lead to prejudice, discrimination and the potential of self-fulfilling prophesies.

So I go back to the question – is it wrong to note that 100 metre athletes are black? No, it is natural to note the fact, but we must be aware of making a judgement from it. Too often we make simple judgements from the facts as we see them, or presume them to be, when they are often to be proven incorrect in the long run. Then, we expose ourselves to our inner prejudice and bias.

It is the acknowledgement of our own prejudices and how we function with them that represents a major part of the “Working with Difference” model that Equality Edge delivers through workshops and coaching. Knowing ourselves and the impact our personal differences and individuality have on our behaviour is the starting point of improving our communication with others.

When the “Working with Difference model is introduced into the workplace our relationships with managers, colleagues and customers improve.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
This entry was posted in age equality, beyond diversity, Bullying & Harassment, discrimination, Equality & Diversity, gender equality, inequality, management, Prejudice, race equality, Uncategorized, workplace bullying. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Assumptions about Racial Characteristics – a recipe for prejudice

  1. cephas says:

    In a diverse society where each individual may have lots of different characteristics and qualities, there are many opportunities for people to label and stereotype others. Such as 100m winners are always black”. When this happens, it can create an environment where prejudice and discrimination may be found. Stereotypes can sometimes be positive – however, this is not the case when it comes to prejudice.
    With prejudice, the views held about certain groups of people are negative, they are applied to an entire group and they tend to be strongly held. So, the group (with possibly a different gender / race / ethnic origin / sexual orientation or with a disability) will be described in negative ways and sometimes called things such as ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘weak’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘untrustworthy’.
    When people are subject to discrimination because of prejudice they often end up with a quality of life far lower than they would reasonably expect. Historically, discrimination and prejudice has sometimes been a matter of life and death in some countries and cultures. Some of the effects of prejudice and discrimination include: people being killed because of their race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation and Communities and whole societies having greater conflict and being less efficient and harmonious.
    I think it is definitely “wrong to note 100m winners are always black”

    • Karen Persad says:

      It certainly is a real tendency on the part of many to give one stereotype a life of its own as it can circulate and survive quite rapidly in many societies, large or small, developed or developing. In my own context, people are not killed because of their race through open warfare or criminality. Quite latently, anyone seen as “different” or visible minorities are deemed “less”, “inferior” and hence, unable to contribute in proportion to their true potential. Effectively, many remain unemployed and even more remain underemployed.

      Being deprived of a livelihood after working hard to educate oneself certainly leads to a death of sorts… a death of the soul, a withering of hope and willpower. For sure, I have seen these deprivations sicken groups of people due to enormous stress levels. Indeed, it is a different way of killing off the unwanted. And yes, this is occuring systematically in a first world context where the highly educated immigrant population is forced to take “survival jobs” because they do not deserve anything better…..

  2. I appreciate you sticking your neck out to write something like this. The sad truth is that we are still a long way from seeing all humans as humans. We count, measure, rate, report, observe etc. on too manythings that divide us as humans. Those who have prejudices will take a long time to come around on their own, or not. But because people continue to divide and label people (innocently) they inadvertantly continue to feed those who want to see others as ‘different’, which is wrong. We need to stop dividing humans by anything, regardless of intent, and then we will have made real progress in the direction of ending racial assumptions such as this.

  3. A very interesting blog (and article). The idea that we often make unconcious assumptions reminded me of the work of ‘Project Implicit’, an initiative of Harvard and several other American Universities that invites individuals to question their own ‘unconcious prejudice’. You can take a variety of simple, anonymous on-line tests exploring bias in gender, race and otherwise on the project’s website ( There’s also a section of the site summarising research undertaken by the project so far. Well worth a look.

  4. equalityedge says:

    Really interesting responses to this blog. Keep the valuable replies coming.

  5. I think we all stereotype and we all label, what matters is whether we are conscious of doing so and willing to question our labels and assumptions. To criticise someone else who holds stereotyped views is hypocritical. Question their view and assumptions, fine, but to criticise people for holding stereotypes is hypocrisy because we all do it. We often hear that ‘the police’ are racist, but do we ever question the fact that generalising about ‘the police’ is in itself a stereotype and ultimately not very useful, just as any particular police officer having a generalisation about ‘black people’ is not very useful. Questioning a behaviour, whoever exhibits that behaviour, is more effective than attributing a characteristic behaviour to a whole group and suggesting the whole group behave in that way. A lot of ‘cultural awareness’ training fails in achieving what its name suggests as it in fact perpetuates stereotyping. . There is a stigma attached to stereotyping and so we are averse to acknowledging that we do it, rather than accept that we all do it but that almost always it is not a generalisation that can be proven. Our language is full of stereotypes but there are some that are condemned (though not explored, just suppressed) and so opening up any for discussion is felt to be ‘risky’ rather than healthy because we might get condemned for having them.

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