Are We Born Racist?

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

Racism against whites: What's the problem?

Different stereotypes, same psychological processes that perpetuate conflict.

This story about whites claiming to be the victims of racism was briefly the lead story on CNN.com over the weekend. The article notes that whites are beginning to engage in forms of collective action (e.g., courses, rallies, consciousness raising) that follow in the historical footsteps of other minority groups in this country. That should tell us something about our commonalities-- our common ways of being hurt by stereotypes, and our common ways of coping... but all we seem to get is anger directed at the Other. 

It's true that many people continue to be blind to the historical legacy of prejudice that affects minorities to this day, and makes the playing field not level. That's why I write this blog, why I teach my course on prejudice and stigma. At the same time, precisely because the playing field is stacked in favor of majority group members, many others feel that claims about discrimination from whites are simply unfounded.

But this perspective fails to understand that stereotypes about whites -- just like stereotypes about minorities--  perpetuate the status hierarchies we all seek to overcome.

credit: Jorchr (Wikipedia commons)
What stereotypes am I talking about? My guess is that the CNN article above makes people uncomfortable in part because it reminds them of white supremacist groups. This is the type of broad generalization that, one can imagine, does not predispose us to reading the article with an open mind. So what's the problem?

Some newly published research by Hilary Bergsieker, Nicole Shelton, and Jennifer Richeson in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology helps shed light on this issue. The researchers note that the stereotype of whites is that they are prejudiced, intolerant, and callous. When people are threatened that they are going to be seen this way, they step up their efforts to seem likeable. They nod their heads, they make self-deprecating comments, they note areas of agreement, they may smile a little too much. Of course, not everybody does this, but the point is that generally speaking, when whites interact across the racial divide, they are particularly likely to worry about the stereotype of being seen as bigots, so they compensate by trying to be super nice.

This seems like a good strategy. However, on the other side of that racial divide, someone else is dealing with their own painful stereotype: the stereotype of being seen as unintelligent and incompetent. African Americans and Latino/as are all too familiar with this stereotype, which lends credence to the idea that stigmatized minorities have to work twice as hard just to be seen or treated as equals. The implication of this stereotype, according to the researchers, is that one is not as likely to adopt a goal of being likeable as much as a goal of inspiring respect. It makes sense-- if you are worried about being pigeonholed as incompetent, you then focus on signaling your achievements, on being a little more serious, on holding a little bit of a straighter posture.

As it turns out, these divergent goals are especially toxic together during interracial interactions. Think about it: if you are working hard to be liked, and the other person is not cracking a smile and not reciprocating to your overtures, your goals are not being met. Similarly, if you are working hard to be respected, and the other person is instead being smiley and gooey with you, your goals are not being met. In other words, the motive to be liked leads to behaviors that are interpreted as disrespectful, and the motive to be respected leads to behaviors that are interpreted as unfriendly! Talk about having your signals cross-- both members of the dyad are trying to achieve something to counteract a stereotype, and precisely because of that, neither participant ends up having a positive interaction. 

In fact, the researchers found that the more an interracial dyad's goals differed, the more negative feelings they had towards each other at the end of the interaction. The tragic part of this is that the participants in the study got so angry about not being understood, even though everybody was involved in the SAME struggle of trying to cope effectively with a negative stereotype about their group.  Nonetheless, rather than being able to relate, we grow ever more separate.

It's important to see that even when stereotypes are directed against groups that have not been historically stigmatized, they still perpetuate the cycle of inequality. Why? Because these stereotypes prevent us from being able to sit down together at the same table, to hire each other, to elect each other to boards, to become friends.

And these types of small steps are key to addressing structural inequalities and leveling the playing field.

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

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