Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Racism against whites: The overlooked phenomenon

The stereotype of all whites as racist is rampant, hurtful-- and wrong.

This recent blog post received the following thoughtful comment:

"I can assume then that no one ever gets madder at a white man because he is white. Do you think that there is no racism against white men?.... I find that nearly everyone I meet assumes that I am racist. And guess why? That's right, the color of my skin!! Ironic, huh. One last thing, when one declares that they are against racism, and fails to stand up for white victims, well you get the point. Let's all be against racism all the time."

The comment is right in one respect and wrong in another.

First, the way in which the comment is right. It is spot on in highlighting the rampant and unchecked stereotype that whites are racist. What do I mean by "rampant and unchecked"? Although there are stereotypes about many groups, not all stereotypes are tabooed to the same degree. For example, there are very strong social norms against expressing negative stereotypes against African Americans and Latino/as. Other stereotypes, including of muslims as dangerous ideologues and of women and frill and dumb, are not particularly held in check these days. These stereotypes are part of our daily national conversation, with very little public outcry.

Yet I'd venture that the perception that all whites are bigots is one of the stereotypes that elicits the least outcry from our society. In so many of our conversations about diversity and overcoming prejudice, whites are too often seen as the source of the problem-- the ones who don't understand, the ones whose attitudes need to be changed, the blue-eyed devils with hate and ignorance in their hearts. "What works well for you when you are interested in inviting white people to talk about racism?" asks a recent blog post on this site.

A hallmark of stereotypes is that they are overgeneralizations, and are unfair precisely because they make assumptions about entire groups of people that rob them of individuality. When people wonder what is wrong with cabbies not picking up a black man because they don't want to drive to a dangerous neighborhood, we often reply is that it is both wrong and unfair to assume that a particular pedestrian lives in a dangerous neighborhood just because he is black. Yet we fail condemn, or even see, the same process of overgeneralization for Whites.  

The stereotype of whites as racist has real and negative consequences for its targets. This has been shown in a recent study by psychologist Phil Goff and colleagues. The researchers conducted a study in which they had white participants arrange three chairs so that they could have a conversation with two black partners about a racially sensitive topic-- here, racial profiling. The findings showed that the more that participants were worried about confirming the white racist stereotype, the greater distance they put between themselves and their partners when arranging the chairs. Thus their anxiety about seeming prejudiced caused them to distance themselves from a person of a different race. Other research suggests that concerns about appearing prejudiced take up so much mental energy among whites that their social skills become impaired during intergroup interactions.

A lot of research and attention is paid to the negative performance effects engendered by negative stereotypes of ability among minorities and women (see for example, my own last blog post!), but we don't as often acknowledge the devastating effects that stereotypes about whites have for our nation's ability to begin having frank and honest conversations about race.

In conversations and sessions around race that I'm involved in, I sense a lot of anger from majorities about being the target of stereotypes (why are you assuming I'm racist? What does my skin have to do with it?). And I sense a lot of anger from minorities about being the target of stereotypes (why are you assuming I'm aggressive or unintelligent? What does my skin have to do with it?).

Anger and intense emotion are generally not helpful when trying to get along. Here, however, we can use our anger and frustration around being targets of discrimination fruitfully: to feel empathy with how it feels to do it to others. Just as we are all potentially subject to being the targets of stereotypes (albeit different stereotypes), we are all potentially subject to stereotyping and being unfair to others.

Which brings me to where the reader's comment was wrong. He writes, "I can assume then that no one ever gets madder at a white man because he is white." I think the reader was responding to the idea that people are more likely to punish stigmatized minorities when they feel they are justified in doing so for reasons that don't involve race (the phenomenon is known as modern racism). As I point out here, though, the cognitive processes that lead to stereotyping are universal, and cut across racial boundaries. There ARE instances where people get madder at a white man because he is white. My suspicion is that when it comes specifically to saying something racist, people are likely to get angrier at and punish whites more than they do minorities. Sure, Juan Williams was fired from NPR-- but he was promptly hired by Fox. Ask yourself-- if a White journalist had said something similar, would quite so many people have been as willing to defend the journalist and blame the network?

Agreed: let's all be against racism all the time. 

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Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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