Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

To Ignore or Confront? Dealing with Racially Stereotyping Comments

To Ignore or Confront? Dealing with Racially Stereotyping Remarks

The man continued to make racially stereotyping remarks. He was a work associate of a friend of mine, we were all having a drink together, and I was getting uncomfortable. I knew that if I said nothing, I would continue to feel bad and awkward. I worried that if I confronted him, that both my friend and his work associate would be mad at me. A classic no win situation.

Black History Month seems like an appropriate time to discuss dealing with these awkward social situations. In the last few years, I've learned about the consequences of both confronting and ignoring stereotyping comments. Alex Czopp, a colleague of mine at Western Washington University, has studied confronting people when they make racially inappropriate comments. Czopp and his collaborators first had to create a situation in which people would make racially stereotyping remarks - tricky to do in a lab situation in which people know they are being observed. They did this by asking people to engage in a computer communication task with another person (actually one of the experimenters).

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The task for participants was to look at pictures of people, read a comment about each person, and then generate a response comment. Three pictures of Blacks set up participants to make racially stereotyping responses. For example, a Black man was pictured with the comment: "This person can be found wandering the streets." This led many individuals to generate their own comment that he was a poor person or homeless (rather than a tourist). One depressing aspect of the research is the number of racially stereotyping comments that were made by the participants.

In some of the experimental conditions, the partner in the task confronted the participant for the racially stereotyping comments. The partner (really one of the experimenters) sometimes made a polite confrontation based on being fair to everyone and sometimes made a more aggressive comment accusing the participant of making prejudiced comments.

Confrontation decreased future racially insensitive remarks - this is great news. Confronting the participants about their racially stereotyping comments decreased the same and related behaviors on subsequent tasks. Polite confrontations were just as effective as more aggressive ones.

But like many things in life, there were costs that went with the benefits. There is no free social justice lunch. The participants who were confronted were generally angry at the confronter and didn't like the confronter as much as they would have otherwise. The negative response was smaller following polite confrontations, but the negative response was there nonetheless. If the confronter was Black, the negative response was stronger that if the confronter was white. Blacks (and by extension women and other racial minorities) pay a high price for calling people on their stereotyping comments and behaviors. I told my sons when talking with them about this research, that as white males, they have a particularly high responsibility to confront people for stereotyping comments. Thus confronting has costs (negative responses from the people we confront) and benefits (a decrease in future insensitive behaviors).

Ignoring the behavior also has benefits and costs. The benefit of ignoring the boorish behavior is that the potential confronter is less likely to upset the individual making the inappropriate remarks. The potential confronter doesn't risk whatever personal or professional connection they have developed with the individual making the stereotyping comments. The costs are crucial to consider, however. First, not confronting means that the individual will not only continue, but may actually increase, the racially stereotyping comments. The individual may take acquiescence as acceptance and approval. Failing to confront has costs for the potential confronter as well. The potential confronter will be the person who feels bad, may come to dislike the insensitive person who might have been willing to change, and may continue to reflect on failing to confront. Worse, if the potential confronter is a member of the offended group, they may feel worse about their own racial group and experience poor performance on a variety of unrelated tasks (a phenomenon known as stereotype threat).

I am ashamed to say that I didn't confront that individual for his racially stereotyping comments. I wanted to maintain my friendship and not risk my friend's work relationship. I missed an opportunity to decrease stereotyping responses and thus improve the world a little. I didn't know about the research by Czopp and his colleague then. Now that I do, I am committing to politely confronting inappropriate comments. I'll suffer the small interpersonal cost of angering a few people for the hope of decreasing prejudice in my community.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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