The MWS Podcast 72: Hári Sewell on Race, Racialization and Inter-relatedness

We are joined today by Hári Sewell who is the director of HS Consultancy Associates, specialists in mental health, equalities & social care. He’s the author of several books, including ‘Working with Ethnicity, Race and Culture in Mental Health’ and ‘The Equality Act 2010 in Mental Health’. He is a social worker by background with over 20 years experience. Until recently he was the Executive Director on Organisational Development in an inner-city mental health foundation trust. He was also Director of Substance Misuse services and Director of Social Care as well as leading the Race Equality programme for the National Mental Health Development. Through these roles Hári has worked to improve service provision for groups with protected characteristics. He has used his positions to advance this agenda and has earned a reputation nationally and internationally for this work. He’s going to talk to us today about race, racialization and inter-relatedness and how all this might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 72: Hári Sewell as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

6 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 72: Hári Sewell on Race, Racialization and Inter-relatedness

  1. It’s great to see a discussion of the Middle Way applied to this area, pursued here with expertise and integrity. Race (and other aspects of cultural identity) are a good example of an area where absolutisation of beliefs causes obvious damage, and where incrementalising our concepts can help. At the same time there are reasonable generalisations in the area of race as in others, which we need to be able to use whilst recognising the uncertainty attached to them: Peter’s discussion of whether Africans typically have a different response to pain from Europeans in the previous podcast would in my view be an example of such an area of reasonable generalisation.

    There’s just one point I wanted to pick up more critically. Near the beginning Barry said (and Hari agreed) that there was no difference in intelligence between the races. That is a point that is actually much debated, because IQ tests have shown differential average results between races (with Asians coming out with average higher IQs, Europeans next, and Africans third). Of course, it would be easy to blame the design of the IQ tests, or factors other than race, and to insist that such evidence couldn’t possibly show differences of (average) intelligence between races: but such arguments tend to have an ad hoc flavour, and perhaps we should be willing to face up to the possibility that part of the small genetic difference between races may actually include intelligence. However, both IQ and the concept of ‘intelligence’ in general has a tendency to over-simplify complex abilities of different types, the difference is still small, and in any case the difference would not of course justify any discriminatory practices in society – just as if differences in average measured IQ emerged between classes, genders or other groups within a race it would not justify any difference to their social and political status. Claims about differences in IQ between races may be associated with racism, but they don’t have to be wrong for racism to be wrong.

    1. Hi Robert
      I take your point that we should be willing to face up to the possibility that part of the small genetic difference between races may actually include intelligence. However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that intelligence is as much (if not more) a skill as something innate like the colour of your eyes . (Hári and I were perhaps somewhat guilty in the talk of implying that the idea of intelligence may be solely linked to our genetic inheritance). IQ tests are in fact a good example of intelligence being something that can be learnt, with people becoming significantly more proficient at them the more often they are done. In Asian cultures there is a lot more recognition of intelligence being something you develop which is reflected in their teaching practices and could quite conceivably be a significant factor in them scoring highest in the IQ tests. In addition, Asian and Western cultures have a lot more educational resources to enable students to cultivate the skill of intelligence than poorer countries in say Africa and this socio- economic factor could also quite easily have had an important effect on the results. See the work of Carol Dweck in regard to this .

      I also think it’s important to be careful about just taking the position that the cognitive abilities tested by the IQ test are the default understanding of what intelligence is. I feel that this assumption is one that has played a large part in skewing the education systems worldwide towards what I see as a very unbalanced left-brain academic curriculum and has led to countless millions of people feeling that have failed in some way because they have not performed well in this fairly narrow band of cognitive abilities. Not only that, it’s extremely inefficient as it fails to capitalize and develop other really valuable skills see Ken Robinson on Do Schools Kill Creativity. I think there is now an increasingly more balanced view of how multifaceted and complex the concept of intelligence is and whether you are inter or intrapersonally, emotionally, artistically, kinaesthetically, musically, naturalistically intelligent (or a combination thereof) etc. should be weighted a lot more evenly with intelligences such as logical and verbal (predominantly left hemisphere attributes) as is given at the moment.

  2. Hi Barry,
    I agree that ‘intelligence’ could be construed in all sorts of ways, and that IQ tests are a narrow way of measuring it. I also agree that to some extent skill in IQ tests can be learned (or at least refined). However, that may be the case with any kind of test in this area.

    I’m not really that interested in what intelligence ‘really is’, because the term refers to what we decide it refers to, but my point referred only to the kind of (narrow) intelligence measured by IQ tests, which may still have a strong genetic component even if the test only offers a very approximate measure of it.

  3. Hi Barry and Robert,

    There are many general differences that can be found between different races – and even within groups of the same race (white people with red hair are prone to bleed more following trauma than those without!) , and so I accept Roberts point that if one were to convincingly determine that there was a significant genetic component to intelligence that created significant IQ differences between races, then accepting this fact would not in itself be racist – although how someone interpreted and acted upon such information could be. Just as it would not be racist to claim that there may be a genetic component that is responsible for many of the worlds fastest runners being black, although this assertion can also be, (and is) used in a racist manner.

    Because such ideas can become ammunition for those with racist world views, then I think that any evidence supporting them must be very strong indeed before they are taken seriously. As such, I find the question of a significant genetic component in the differences found in the IQ’s of differing races to be unconvincing. Aside from the difficulties with IQ tests that have already been alluded to, the fact that there seems to also be significant differences of IQ between social classes (regardless of race) indicates that social conditions play a greater role – unless one would suggest that people from families with a lower income are genetically prone to have lower IQ’s, therefore an improvement of social circumstance would make little difference. Which, apart from being a little 19th century, seems to be the implication made by those whom seriously claim that IQ, rather than social environment, creates the apparent difference in IQ between the races.


  4. I found this podcast to be extremely informative. Having been challenged by Hari before about not seeing colour, I find I have been challenged further here.
    With reference to the point about where our unconscious bias originates, a recent BBC3 programme “Is Britiain racist?”
    showed an experiment carried out at the Wolfson Institute.
    A brain scan of the presenter, highlighted that, when, shown pictures of black people and people from other ethnicities, her amygdala -fear centre – lit up when shown the pictures of black people, but so did two areas of her prefrontal cortex – her conscious thought. The presenter was mortified, but the researcher explained that the response that the pictures triggered was due to all the things Hari mentioned, e.g. images on TV, media representations, language used etc, but the amygdala response was suppressed by the presenter’s conscious thought processes. Education is key!

    As far as IQ tests go, there is a whole industry around coaching for grammar school entrance tests. Carol Dweck is right!

  5. Hi Catherine
    Thanks very much for the link. I’ll check it out. That’s a really interesting bit of information about what’s going on neurologically when we encounter people from other ethnicities. It makes sense but it’s nice to have it supported scientifically, I was involved in a discussion about prejudice the other evening and I was arguing that we indeed are all inevitably prejudiced to a lesser or greater degree due to the conditioning that we’ve been subjected too, but that what we do about it is the key – that bit of info would have been really useful!

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