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It’s something ugly. You’re with your spouse and all of a sudden, something racially insensitive spews from their mouth.

The reality is that people still say racist things. Understanding why can help put an end to it.

Why do I have racist thoughts?

I was on the road with my family in a small New Jersey town. We started getting hungry and drove past several diners and family-style restaurants. At last, my daughter called out from the back seat, "Look!" as she eagerly pointed out a fast food restaurant known throughout the world. We pulled in, ordered some burgers and fries and got back on the road well sated from our meal.

Why, surrounded by so many different choices of places to eat, did we end up going to a burger joint we had eaten a hundred times before? Simple. We were familiar with it and knew what to expect. Had we chosen a restaurant we didn’t know, we would have been taking a chance: safety, speed, quality…who knows what might have happened?

My family’s behavior on this trip reflects a truism about human experience; people seek comfort in things they are familiar with, and often feel at risk by the unknown. Racism stems from the human tendency to seek out surroundings and situations that won’t threaten us—anything that we’ve already seen, and handled, fits the bill. Things that are new to us, however, are sources of possible distress.

A racist person attempts to understand someone, of another race, through a set of "rules" that will "explain" the ways he or she is different. These preconceived ideas, or stereotypes, look past the individual; people who are racist define expectations of another person based on their differences without considering who that person really is. Usually these stereotypes are negative, such as seeing another race as cheap or lazy. Sometimes people are victims of positive stereotyping such as: "hard working," or "good at math." The bottom line—if you’re engaging in racist stereotypes, you’re making up your mind before you even know the facts.

Sometimes racism affects marriage in subtle ways. Because people who marry rarely are matched in all ways (race, social class, religion, nationality), one partner may assume things about the spouse (or the spouse’s family) just because of those differences. That can put serious stress on the relationship.

People develop racism often from the prejudices passed on to them from their parents, grandparents or friends. Some racist ideas are actually perpetuated by governments or teachers. Also, the media sometimes perpetuates stereotypes and provides a distorted view of cultures different from our own.

Breaking thought prejudices requires opening up your mind, letting go of old belief systems, and being able to see individuals for who they really are. It’s the only way to really understand how, and why, someone is different from you. Yeah, you’ll be venturing into unknown territory, and it can be risky, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at discovering a person behind those false assumptions. Maybe if my family had stopped at one of those diners, we might have gotten a hot apple pie that was much better than the one we ate!

Dr. Haltzman is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University. He presents his talks: "The Secrets of Happily Married Women," and "Win Your Wife's Heart Forever" at this year's Smart Marriages conference June 28-July 1, 2007 in Denver.

He is the author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife’s Heart Forever." You can find Dr. Haltzman at www.DrScott.com

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Over 1 million couples turn to Hitched for expert marital advice every year. Sign up now for our newsletter & get exclusive weekly content that will entertain, educate and inspire your marriage.

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