Study finds reactions to racism not as strong as we think

One reason racism persists is that many people imagine they would respond strongly to a racist act but actually respond with indifference, a new study led by York University shows.

Published in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Science, “Mispredicting Affective and Behavioural Responses to Racism” examines why acts of blatant racism against blacks still occur with alarming regularity, even though being labelled as a racist in modern society has become a powerful stigma.

“People do not think of themselves as prejudiced, and they predict that they would be very upset by a racist act and would take action,” said lead author Kerry Kawakami (right), a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health. “However, we found that their responses are much more muted than they expect when they are actually faced with an overtly racist comment.”

Kawakami led the study at York with graduate student Francine Karmali. University of British Columbia Professor Elizabeth Dunn, an expert on people’s ability to predict their future emotional responses, and Yale University Professor John Dovidio, an expert on prejudice, are co-authors.

In the study, students who think they are waiting for an experiment to begin are exposed to racism. Specifically, a white confederate makes a racist comment about a black confederate when he briefly leaves the room. When he returns, the actual participant is asked to choose a partner to work with on a subsequent exercise.

“What we found was that students were more likely to choose the white confederate as a partner (63 per cent), despite the fact that the white person had made a racist comment about the black person,” says Kawakami. “And the racist comments ranged from moderate to one of the most powerful anti-black slurs in the English language.”

The findings may seem surprising at a time when America is about to inaugurate its first black president, but the election of one black man does not mean that racism is dead or that people will no longer tolerate acts of racism, says Kawakami.

Notably, there has been little research done on how people respond to prejudice toward others. However, Dunn, one of the authors of the Science article, studies people’s ability to predict their own affective and behavioural reactions.

“People often make inaccurate forecasts about how they would respond emotionally to negative events. They vastly overestimate how upset they would feel in bad situations such as hearing a racial slur,” says Dunn. “One of the ways that people may stem the tide of negative emotions related to witnessing a racial slur is to re-construe the comment as a joke or as a harmless remark.”

Further studies currently being conducted by these researchers are investigating how characteristics related to the racists and the target of prejudice increases or decreases emotional, behavioural and physiological reactions to racial slurs. Examining people’s perceptions of both the white and black confederate may provide important clues as to when people do and do not stand up against racism.