Psychologists in Canada and the US suggest that people predict they will feel worse than they actually do after witnessing racial abuse and that while they think or say they would take action, they actually respond with indifference when faced with an act of racism. This is despite the fact that being labelled as a racist has become a powerful stigma in our society today.

Researchers from Departments of Psychology at York University in Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, performed the study, which is published on 9 January in Science.

How is it that despite racial prejudice being strongly condemned in our society today, acts of blatant racism still occur? The researchers propose that one reason is that people don’t understand how they would feel and behave after witnessing an act of racism.

They said the study demonstrated that despite saying they would be upset if they saw an act of racism, when non-black people actually witnessed racism against a black person, they showed little emotional distress. Also, they tended to overestimate the extent to which a person making a racist comment would be socially rejected.

Such tolerance of racism leads to its perpetuation, because a number of studies have shown that when people are confronted about the racist remarks they make, they are less likely to repeat them, said co-author John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale and expert on prejudice.

We have an unconscious bias that affects us in significant ways,” said Dovidio.

For the study, Dovidio and colleagues studied 120 non-black volunteers who were waiting for what they thought was the real experiment to begin when were then exposed to racism. One group of participants directly experienced racial incidents where they witnessed a black person, who was posing as one of the volunteer participants, bump into a white person who was also posing as a participant. After the black participant left the room, the white participant either said nothing, or “clumsy n_____,” or “I hate it when black people do that”.

The other participants either read about the incidents or watched a video of them and were then asked to predict what their responses would be.

All the participants were also asked to say which of the others they would be willing to work with.

The participants who did not actually witness the events first hand were much more likely to say they were upset at the comment the white participant made about the black participant, and to say they would refuse to work with such a person. The participants who actually witnessed the events first hand reported being less distressed and 63 per cent of them were more willing to work with the white participant who made the racist remark as one who did not.

Dovidio explained the situations in terms of costs: the direct witnesses were less willing to pay the emotional cost of confrontation than they imagined they would be able to, which in turn means the person making the racist comments doesn’t pay the cost of being ostracised.

Psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, and lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, said:

. “People do not think of themselves as prejudiced, and they predict that they would be very upset by a racist act and would take action.”

“However, we found that their responses are much more muted than they expect when they are actually faced with an overtly racist comment,” added Kawakami.

Kawakami said this finding may come as a surprise as Americans anticipate the inauguration of their first black president. But the election of one black man does not mean racism is dead or that racism will not be tolerated, said Kawakami.

There hasn’t been much research on how people react to other people’s prejudices, but co-author professor Elizabeth Dunn, from the University of British Columbia, who studies people’s ability to predict their own emotional and behavioural reactions said:

“People often make inaccurate forecasts about how they would respond emotionally to negative events.”

“They vastly overestimate how upset they would feel in bad situations such as hearing a racial slur,” she added.

“One of the ways that people may stem the tide of negative emotions related to witnessing a racial slur is to re-construe the comment as a joke or as a harmless remark,” explained Dunn.

The researchers at York University are now investigating how the characteristics of racists and their targets increase or decrease the emotional, behavioural and psychological aspects of people’s reactions to racist slurs. For instance in the case of these participants, studying the perceptions of the white and black volunteers could give important clues about when people do and do not confront racism.

“Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism.
Kerry Kawakami, Elizabeth Dunn, Francine Karmali, and John F. Dovidio.
Science Vol. 323. no. 5911, pp. 276 – 278; Published online 9 January 2009.
DOI: 10.1126/science.1164951.

Click here for Abstract.

Sources: Journal Abstract, Yale University, York University.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD