This Lady Refused to Sit Next to a "Negro," The Full Story

The anti-racism PSA showed a part of racism, but only a small part.

Posted Jun 11, 2014

There's this anti-racism PSA making its way around the internet. You've probably seen it. It shows a white, middle-aged, female plane passenger telling the flight attendant that she doesn't want to sit next to a "negro." 

The PSA was made by the Portuguese Commission 15 years ago in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has English subtitles but probably wasn't intended primarily for an English-speaking audience. Certainly, it does not purport to capture either the culture or the linguistic nuance of the United States. At the same time, Americans are clearly consuming it and its message has recently been described by Upworthy as "timeless" and by Iacknowledge as "the most powerful anti-racism commercial you will ever see," so I think it's worthy of some commentary.

The PSA is titled "Despicable." And while I am not usually fond of labels, in this case, the woman's behavior certainly warrants it. Despicable? Without doubt. But also relatively unrealistic, at least in contemporary U.S. society where most people with enough money to fly know better than to say things like this in public. I don't know enough about race dynamics in Portugal to criticize the PSA, but in the U.S. market, it misses the mark.

The problem with PSAs like this is that they suggest that racism looks like this and that what doesn't look like this is not racism.

This is misleading. Contemporary racism takes many forms, besides the explicit kind depicted in "Despicable," there is also Symbolic Racism (Kinder & Sears, 1981) and its close relative, Dog Whistle Racism (Lopez, 2014). There is also Ambivalent Racism (Katz &Hass,1988), and Aversive Racism (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986), not to mention Implicit Bias (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).  I'll describe each of these in a later post. In the meantime, look them up on your own.

And there is also this: It's not just that racism is expressed in a variety of ways. It also varies as a function of its target. We see this, for example, in the work of Susan Fiske who described and showed evidence for three different types of prejudice: Contemptuous Prejudice, Envious Prejudice, and Paternalistic Prejudice.

Fiske identified these types by having different samples of college students and community members rate their attitudes towards a variety of different groups on two different dimensions: Warmth and Competence. The ratings of college students and community members were consistent with one another. You can see the student cluster below. 

Types of Prejudice

Not all prejudice is the same. Figure from Fiske et al 2002, JPSP, 82, 878-902

According to Fiske's research, Americans generally react to Black professionals, not with contempt but with envy. This doesn't, of course, preclude the former response, but if the goal of the PSA is to depict a typical, representative white reaction, it missed the mark, at least in regard to the American public.

My point is this: Sure, the behavior in the Despicable PSA is deplorable, but just because we don't stoop to that level doesn't mean we're off the hook for being racist. The problem is much more serious and insidious and requires a great deal more honesty, both with ourselves and each other. The truth is that most of us will never behave like the lady in the video, but it's also true that all of us are capable of a racist act, even if we're fully committed to racial justice. And when this happens, we have to be willing to acknowledge what happened and take responsibility to make things right. Oversimplified depictions of racism stand in the way of both self-responsibility and restorative actions.


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