Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Perception and Reaction to Racism Not Equal

Not Exactly Rocket Science covered an extremely interesting study on how people respond to racism and how they predict they will respond, offering it as a reason why racism is so looked down on and yet so rampant. What with all the previous discussion here about racism, I couldn't not post this info. It's the most unique approach I've seen yet.

[Kerry Kawakami of York University] recruited 120 volunteers of various races (apart from black), sat each one in a room with two actors - one white, one black - and watched as the white student reacted to having their knee bumped. In some trials, they said nothing; in others, they said, "Typical, I hate it when black people do that," and in the most extreme cases, they said, "Clumsy [n-word]." When the black partner returned, all three were asked to fill in a survey about their current state of mind and the real volunteer was asked to pick one of the other two to help them complete a word task.

Only half of the volunteers - the "experiencer" group - actually sat through these events. The other half - the "forecasters" - were only told about it and asked to put themselves in the shoes of an experiencer. Kawakimi found that their forecasts of their feelings and reactions bore little resemblance to the way the experiencers actually behaved.

Expectedly, forecasters said that they would be very upset by either racist slur. In reality, the experiencers were largely indifferent, and those who heard negative remarks were actually no more distressed than those whose partners hadn't said anything at all. Likewise, only about 10-20% of the forecasters said that they would choose the white person as their partner over the black one but a much higher 63% of the experiencers actually did so. If anything, they were more likely to pick their white associate if they made a racist slur than if they said nothing.


Kawakimi's results suggest that people really are terrible at predicting the extent to which racist comments would upset them and whether they would distance themselves from people who said such comments. The two mistakes are probably related - people think that they would reject racism because they overestimate how much it would really affect them.

Even [the n-word] - widely regarded as one of the most offensive words in the English language - didn't bother people that much and didn't change their likelihood of associating with another person. Acts that ought to make the blood boil were actually met with indifference.

So basically, non-blacks are much more likely to pretend to be shocked/dismayed by racism than they really are.

I find this surprising myself since the first and last really racist person I had to deal with for any amount of time constantly made me incredibly pissed. I was nanny for a summer in Erie, PA for a really racist couple. The guy made a comment one day about how he was worried that his son played with the one black kid in the neighborhood, "because he might think it's okay to grow up and marry those people" and I wanted to slap his face. I didn't, of course, cuz I needed the job, but luckily I dealt with his wife most of the time.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't understand why intolerance is so widely tolerated.

Related posts:
Racism in the Kansas City Area: Western Expansion - 1800s and 1900s - Present
Tony's Take on Racism in the Kansas City Area

Like what you see? Subscribe here or add to Mixx


H. Lewis Smith said...

Black America and the N-word:

JOCOeveryman said...

that is an interesting study. I don't always say something when somebody says something racist (I wish I would) but at the least I try to have as little to do with them as I can in the future because I don't want to be associated with them as in guilty by association.

Kris the Vagabond said...

I think some of the difference between perception and reaction is telling someone how you would react can be an attempt to not appear rascist and to act as you are "expected" to. A person could say, "Oh, the n-word would upset me," when in reality it wouldn't upset him or her much at all. I think it is more based on who is in the audience.

For example, I'm gay. A lot of people use terms like "fag" and "dyke" on a regular basis and see nothing wrong with it, even when it perpetuates a homophobic stereotype. But when I'm around and someone uses the terms, I'll see friends' eyes dart to me. They will gauge my reaction to decide how to respond. If I'm upset, should they be upset? If I let it go, should they let it go? Instead of truly considering how they feel about a homophobic slur, they use me as an out to determine how they "should" react. The problem with that is then you have political correctness rather than authentic tolerance.

May said...

That's a very succinct way to put it! I agree.