Are We Born Racist?

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

Just How Offended Are We by Racist Events?

Is there a difference between anticipating and witnessing racism?

Sporting events can be raucous affairs. From Tom Brady suggesting that fans "start drinking early," to the NBA's "Palace Brawl", to the tragic recent incident at Dodgers stadium, many different factors contribute to a charged, volatile atmosphere. There's of course the drinking, but there's also intergroup hostility (between, at least, fans of different teams), as well as a crowd mentaility in which people can find themselves doing things they normally wouldn't do as individuals.

Now imagine yourself, if you will, sitting at one of these rowdy sporting events-- a hockey game, say. People are drinking, yelling things, and even throwing things out onto the rink. As an African American player prepares to take a shot, you notice someone near you throws something.... a banana peel. Many people quickly interpret this action as making reference to the player's race, and as such, racist and demeaning.

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If you were to witness this event, how would you feel, how would you act? 

Sadly, this incident actually happened recently at a Flyers-Red Wings preseason game.  If you are like countless other people who learned about this incident, you would be full of rage and indignation. The incident was uniformly condemned, and the fan demonized (see, e.g., here and here). A teammate of the African American player even said, "I would have went and kicked that fan's (behind) myself. Than's just not right." A noble showing of solidarity, no doubt, even if the proposed fix is suspect.

Now I'd like you to imagine yourself in a different, analogous situation. You sign up to take part, along with two other people, in a psychology experiment. One of the other participants is black and the other is white. Pretty much as soon as everyone sits down, the black participant realizes he's left his cell phone outside. As he gets up to get it, he bumps into the foot of the white guy. The white guy says, "I hate it when black people do that," or even worse, utters a racial epithet.

I ask again: If you were to witness this event, how would you feel, how would you act? 

If you're like most people, you'd probably anticipate feeling deeply offended. You might even want to kick the offender's behind. Furthermore, if you were then asked to then choose between the two guys to do another task with, who would you choose? Most people here anticipate that they would definitely NOT choose the white guy. Who in their right mind, after all, would choose to continue interacting with a racist?

You might be wondering how I know how most people would react to this situation. The answer is that this very study has been published in nothing less than the journal Science (Kawakami, Dunn, Karmali, and Dovidio, 2009). When people were asked to predict how they'd react in this scenario, people reported that they'd feel very upset, and only about 15% of participants anticipated that they would choose the guy who made the racist remark as a partner for the rest of the study.

The twist, however, came when people were actually placed in this situtation. With a white and a black actor posing as fellow participants in the study, the researchers measured the amount of negative affect participants experienced after hearing such a comment, and then the percentage of people who chose the white particpant for the subsequent task (no black participants were included in the study because the researchers were interested in reactions to outgroup stereotypes).

Surprisingly, relative to a condition in which the white actor didn't make any racist remark at all, people did not experience any more negative emotional distress when the white actor uttered a racist remark. What's more, whether the white actor made no racist remark, a moderately racist remark, or an extremely racist, people ended up choosing the white actor for a subsequent task a majority of the time--  about 65% of the time. The results strongly suggest that the racist remark actually had very little effect on participants' actual feelings and subsequent behavior.

One of the sobering conclusions from this study is that even though people mean well, and anticipate feeling negatively when they are witnesses to racism, the reality is that they seriously overestimate how bothered they will feel. People are more likely to react with indifference-- almost as if they were saying, well, it doesn't affect me directly, so I'm not going to bother that much with it. This phenomenon may help explain why, even though people were enraged at the banana peel thrower after the hockey game, nobody pointed him out during the game, and why it took several days to even identify him (the fan claims he didn't mean racial intent). It may also help shed light on the recent flap over a rock with a racial epithet painted on it on Rick Perry's property: people were incensed, and it was clearly insensitive, but the epithet was not paiinted over until at least the 1980's. If we are to believe this research, the more likely immediate response to seeing an epithet on a rock, or to seeing someone throw a banana peel, is rather one of indifference.

My question to you is this: next time you see racial injustice-- and knowing what you now know-- how will you respond?

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

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

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