Are We Born Racist?

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

The Unfair Self-Esteem Trap Faced by Minority Students

Trapped between protecting self-esteem and believing negative feedback.

Check out this video:

 

Like many of the students I have shared this clip with, this video may have inspired in you a strong sense of the inherent injustice of stereotypes; negative stereotypes that lead African American children to reject a Black doll only "because it's Black." The original study that Kiri Davis based her study on, by Herb and Mimi Clark (1947), had such a strong impact that it was actually used by the U.S. Supreme Court as a cornerstone in its decision to abolish school segregration in the U.S. (Brown v. Board of Ed., 1954). Watching this video, it's almost impossible not to come to the conclusion that African Americans, and other stigmatized minorities, must suffer from low self-esteem.

 Have we really not progressed in the 60 years since the original study?

As it turns out, we have changed, but it's not clear that we can call this change "progress" towards equality. Kiri Davis's documentary reinforces the popular belief that African Americans internalize, or come to believe, the negative stereotypes directed against them, and thus suffer from low self-esteem. Twenge and Crocker (2002), however, in a large meta-analysis, have shown that African Americans, on the whole, have significantly higher self-esteem relative to White Americans. Psychologists explain this phenomenon by noting that stigmatization can be self-protective. Think about it — if you are a minority student, for example, and you get negative feedback on an assignment or test, you can blame the outcome on yourself, or you can blame the negative outcome on discrimination. If you choose to do the latter, it's possible to actually protect your self-esteem, and not let the negative outcome affect you.

A study by Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, and Major (1991) showed this self-esteem protection in an experimental setting. The researchers invited African Americans to participate in an experiment that was purportedly on friendship development. The participants were invited to sit in one of two rooms that were separated by a one-way mirror, and they were told that the other study participant (whom particpants thought was White) was already sitting in the other room. The critical experimental manipulation was that in one condition, the blinds to the one-way mirror were down, so that participants thought that the other person could not see them. In the other condition, the blinds were left up, so that participants thought the other person could see them. The participants filled out some questionnaires, and they were told that the person next door would be looking at their responses and rating how much they wanted to meet them in person. 

In reality, nobody was sitting in the other room, and this allowed the experimenters to manipulate the kind of feedback that the real participants received. For this manipulation, the participants learned that this person, after having gone over their answers, either really wanted to meet them, or was not at all eager to meet them. Of critical interest was what happened to people's self-esteem when they received negative interpersonal feedback.

In the blinds-down condition—that is, when participants thought that the person didn't know their race—their self-esteem plummeted. This is generally what happens to our self-esteem when others reject us. In the blinds-up condition, however, the participants' self-esteem was not at all affected, almost as if participants were saying "I don't care what this person thinks, I know they can see me and they are just racist. This has no bearing on how I feel about myself."

In some ways, this is progress, because it shows that people do not just take the negative stereotypes directed against them lying down, and can choose to protect themselves by discounting negative feedback from others. At the same time, however, this strategy represents an unfair trap, particularly when it comes to education.

In the educational arena, you see, negative feedback is part of the process through which one learns. As a student, you make mistakes, and those mistakes are critical to improving one's knowledge and competence. The trap here is that discounting negative feedback as so many instances of racism can protect self-esteem—yet doing so can also lead students to miss out on learning opportunities when the feedback is legitimate.

It is easy to say that it is the student's responsibility to approach negative feedback constructively and to take responsibility for his or her learning. But this view is as callous as not recognizing the unfairness captured in Kiri Davis's video. Getting negative feedback is hard enough without having to contend with doubts about whether this feedback is useful, or worthless because it's prejudiced. It's an unfair self-esteem trap that is specific to minority students who have to contend with negative ability stereotypes.

If only the unfairness of this trap invoked the same sense of compassion—the same recognition of injustice—that watching young children differentiate between White and Black dolls does, we'd be on the road to progress.

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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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