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How Psychology Shapes Our Prejudice

How Psychology Shapes Our Prejudice

Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, is helping churches and faith-based groups transcend deep-seated divisions.

One of the most compelling speakers at the 2013 Inhabit Conference—a gathering about faith and place co-hosted by This Is Our City—was Christena Cleveland. A social psychologist with a PhD from the University of California, Cleveland is helping churches and faith-based organizations understand and heal social fragmentation. I recently spoke with Cleveland about her forthcoming book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (IVP Books, 2013), and how social psychology can help Christians reconcile with diverse groups in their communities and cities.

Social psychology is "the study of the ways in which the imagined, implied or actual presence of others affects our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors," says Cleveland. As an African American growing up in Fremont, California (at the time one of most diverse cities in America), Cleveland's first brush with social psychology was on her neighborhood streets. "On my block alone, there were nine different nationalities represented," she says. "I was used to growing up with all sorts of different kids, dealing with cultural conflicts, celebrating everyone's different holidays and special occasions—that was the norm for me."

When she was in third grade, Cleveland's father started a multiethnic church comprising four equally proportioned groups: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and whites. There, Cleveland sung and prayed in languages far beyond English. She also had racial slurs hurled at her at a local church's Vacation Bible School. These and other experiences piqued her interest early on about fundamental questions of social psychology, such as, "Why don't groups get along?" and "Why do they perceive each other inaccurately?"

Today Cleveland teaches the reconciling benefits of social psychology, working with groups to raise awareness of their social misperceptions and bringing conflicting groups together to find ways to collaborate. Disunity in Christ explores how social psychology reveals fragmentation in the body of Christ. Filled with many personal stories, the book highlights, among other things, how differences become divisions, and how the prevailing marketing culture feeds unhealthy competition between groups.

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