Are We Born Racist?

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

How Subtle Discrimination Affects Targets II: American as Apple Pie

Can questions about whether you are "really" American affect how you eat?

As I explore about in this blog post, prejudice and discrimination do not have to be blatant or extreme to affect people. Although tragedies such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin grab headlines, these incidents are a lot less common than the racial slurs or put-downs, masked as jokes or tongue-in-cheek bantering, that minorities often have to face. This seems particularly true in sports—a fan throws a banana peel at a black hockey player; an unwitting journalist runs the headline "chink in the armor" when the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks begin to lose. Just last week, at the NCAA basketball tournament, Kansas State's Angel Rodriguez was taunted by members of the Southern Miss band with the chant "Where Is Your Green Card?" :

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These events have a way of staying in the mind of targets—and of affecting their behavior—long after the public outcries have died down.

Latino Americans are not the only group subjected to questions about whether they are American (just ask President Obama). A recent study by UC Berkeley graduate student Maya Guendelman and her colleagues in the journal Psychological Science (Guendelmann, Cheryan, and Monin, 2011) focused specifically on how questions of whether one is "really" an American affects, of all things, what people eat.

In their first study, the researchers approached Asian American students and White students on a college campus to fill out a survey about food preferences. For half of the participants, the researchers first asked the seemingly innocuous question, "Do you speak English?" The Asian Americans who had been asked this question were statistically more likely to report favorite foods that are associated with America, such as burgers and french fries, compared to either Asian Americans who had not been asked this question or to White Americans (for this latter group, asking about their English had no effect on their food preferences).

In a second study, Guendelman and colleagues specifically invited Asian American participants to the lab to select and then eat foods from a web-based menu. The menu fully disclosed the nutritional information of the food choices. Half of the participants, chosen at random, were stopped by the experimenter at the door and told, "Actually, you have to be an American to be in this study."

All of the participants clarified that they were indeed American—but that was not the point. The point was to see how the identity threat invoked by the experimenter's words would affect their food choices. As with Study 1, following this very brief interchange, the participants who were under identity threat were more likely to choose foods from the American menu—grilled cheese, hamburgers, fries, Philly cheese steak, chicken fritters—than participants whose American identity had not been threatened. This small manipulation, in fact, caused the study participants to choose (and later eat) food with an average extra 182 calories and 12 grams of fat.

Talk about sacrificing your body for the sake of fitting in.

By the way, the basketball player, Angel Rodriguez, calmly made his free throws and helped his team advance in the tournament. I do wonder, though, whether the taunts somehow affected his later behavior in unintended ways. These mysteries are a large part of what this blog is about. 

What are some ways in which this kind of identity threat has affected your own behavior? Share your experiences in your comments below.

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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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