Pride and Prejudice

Highlights the study on how people cope up with discrimination. Defense mechanism of Afro-American women who experience discrimination; How people in high society cope up when discriminated.

By Jeff Howe, published May 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


The consequences of discrimination are extensive and well-chronicled: emotional abuse; loss of jobs and opportunities; dreams deferred. A recent study sheds more light on the complexity of how people cope with prejudice on a personal level.

Previous research conducted by Karen Ruggiero, Ph.D., of Harvard University, revealed that the more a group of people faces discrimination, the less likely they are to acknowledge it. So black women, for example, . reported feeling less marginalized than white men, despite the fact the women probably experienced more prejudice. This reluctance to accept their treatment by society, the psychology professor found, is a natural defense mechanism. Facing the daily burden of racial and gender prejudice is simply too depressing a prospect for many black women; it may be easier for them to internalize the way they are treated than to reflect on it constantly and feel increasingly powerless in a bigoted world.

Now, a new study by Ruggiero and Brenda Major, Ph.D., of the University of California-Santa Barbara, reveals the other side of the coin: that high-status group members are more likely to attribute personal failure to discrimination, despite the fact they are the least likely to experience it. For high-status group members, crying discrimination provides a temporary scapegoat for the low blow to their usual sense of entitlement and belonging.

"Basically, they still know that society values them for who they are," says Ruggiero. Thus, a white male views discrimination as an aberrant experience and doesn't worry about its ultimate impact on his future. Black women, however, are forced to accept discrimination as a destructive part of daily life. They may avoid dwelling on this disheartening reality by refusing to blame their problems on prejudice.

Ruggiero believes the backlash against affirmative action is somehow related to the phenomenon revealed in her research. "If low-status group members minimize discrimination, then that might lead us to believe discrimination is no longer a problem," says Ruggiero. "On the other hand, the fact that high-status groups are so willing to claim that they've been victimized might lead us to believe they're worse off than they really are."

She does see hope, however: "This study could dispel the popular myth that women and minorities are eager to play the race or gender card, when in fact, it's the opposite case."