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Americans are both obsessed with and confused by issues of race and ethnicity: Witness the buzz over whether the country is ready for a black president, for instance, or the media's negative depiction of Muslims.

With race in the spotlight, psychologists have a great opportunity to help Americans accept differences and begin to overcome prejudice, said Stanford University psychology professor and identity researcher Hazel Rose Markus, PhD, at an invited address during APA's Annual Convention.

"The time has come for psychologists to integrate our research and go ahead with a unified theory," said Markus, who directs Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

While there is excellent psychological research addressing race, ethnicity and stereotyping, the field is somewhat disjointed because of different theoretical orientations and psychology's emphasis on both individual and universal factors rather than on relationships and historical and social context, she said. To bridge these gaps, Markus is developing a theory that would:

  • Define race and ethnicity more clearly.

  • Create a dynamic model of how these constructs operate.

  • Bring together research from relevant fields of psychology -- social, cultural, black, clinical and counseling -- as well as other relevant disciplines such as history and sociology.

  • Include multiethnic, multiracial teams.

  • Incorporate an historical view of issues such as slavery, oppression, and the white American identity and legacy.

To date, she and colleagues have been working on two features of the theory: developing accurate definitions of race and ethnicity and crafting a dynamic model showing how race and ethnicity are developed and maintained.

Accurate definitions are vital because people still believe that race and ethnicity are intrinsic features of a person, said Markus.

"Most people still discuss race and ethnicity as something people have rather than as something that they do," she said. "Yet they are quite obviously social constructions transmitted and held in place by people in relation to each other and by institutions."

In her view, race and ethnicity share a similar definition as "a dynamic set of historically derived and institutionalized ideas and practices that allow people to identify or be identified on the basis of commonalities including language, history, nation, customs, physical appearance and ancestry."

But while ethnicity is developed by one's own group and confers a sense of identity and belonging, many ideas and practices associated with race are created and maintained by those outside the group, usually those with more power than the group in question, her theory holds.

And many of the ideas and practices associated with race are negative and at odds with how a group perceives itself, she noted.

An example is some Americans' tendency to see Muslims as terrorists or religious extremists. "So any ideas that Muslims themselves have about what is good and true and beautiful about being Muslim," she said, "are drowned out by this racializing process."

Helping to scientifically illuminate these phenomena could be a way for psychology to positively influence our country's social climate during a time of uncertainty and change, Markus added.

"A unified theory could help us move toward an applicable and communicable approach that we can give away to practitioners in education, business and social policy, who often desperately seek advice about what to say and how to think about race and ethnicity," she said.