Many cringe-worthy moments between White people and people of colour come from well-intentioned White folks, not from slur-spewing, Nazi-saluting bigots.
These are people who are your good friends, dating partners, supportive colleagues, or friendly strangers at parties. They’re likely progressive in their views, culturally aware, and well-read. They volunteer where needed, protest when things are dire, and they always recycle.
In short, these are people with good intentions. Yet, they often get it really wrong.
The phenomenon is so recognisable in popular culture, that there are millions of videos on YouTube dedicated to this genre (I’m referring to the “shit White people say” comedy series.)
So how do interactions between White folks and folks of colour become awkward? Social psychological research offers us some understanding.
4 reasons interracial interactions go awry and strategies that help:
1. Anxiety and avoidance
Friendly interactions between groups is known to reduce prejudice and build harmony between these groups.
However, interracial interactions can be a source of some mild forms of stress for both people involved.
For White people, interracial contact brings concerns about appearing prejudiced. They may use avoidance strategies such as over-monitoring themselves to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. Often times, such interactions can be draining.
For people of colour, interracial contact brings concerns of experiencing prejudice and/or confirming racial stereotypes with their behaviours, especially stereotypes to do with their competence. This leads to a heightened awareness of one’s racial group identity (e.g., I am Keira the Aboriginal woman versus Keira the cute 20-something year old in this party) and over-monitoring of one’s mannerisms or behaviours in an attempt to ensure smooth interactions. This results in them feeling less authentic.
What helps? For White people, it can be useful to try to recognise and accept the awkwardness first – it will pass. And be motivated by the desire to foster equality, mutual understanding, and friendship, rather than trying to avoid appearing prejudiced.
2. Positive stereotyping
We are often guided by multicultural values that encourage not just acknowledgement of racial and ethnic differences, but also appreciation of these differences.
White people motivated by such values might think that they are being appreciative and complimentary to people of colour, when they make remarks such as “Gosh Asians are so good at Math” or “You Indian women are so exotic looking”.
Such positive stereotypes are sometimes considered non-prejudicial by Whites.
However, research shows us that these positive stereotypes are received by minorities with ambivalence at best, and with negativity at its worst: perceiving Whites in such interactions as unlikeable or even prejudiced.
Positive stereotypes negatively affect minorities’ self and community esteem if they feel judged by their group membership rather than individual merits and achievements. Also, they may not self-identify with such descriptors.
What helps? Acknowledging that positive stereotypes are capable of evoking negative responses, and is another form of subtle prejudice, can be a good starting point. Actively engaging in the idea that substantial individual differences exist within groups can be helpful too.
3. Denying others’ identity and putting them in the wrong category
In the spirit of multiculturalism, White people can inadvertently deny a person of colour an identity that they feel strongly about.
Take for instance an unfortunate situation where a White Australian at a party, in an attempt to establish a bond with someone with a turban and brown skin, asks them about a recent event in India, all while the turbaned individual actually identifies as Aussie (born and raised) and has never been to India.
Questions such as “How long have you lived in this country?” or “Where are you really from?” while motivated by genuine interest and curiosity, could imply that the person does not belong here. For example, asking a hijabi Muslim woman living in Australia where she is from can inadvertently communicate that they could not possibly be Australian and that, no matter what, they are considered foreign.
When minorities experience such identity denial, they sense the difference between how they describe themselves and how they are publicly identified. They report disliking their interaction partners, and engage in explicit identity assertion strategies as a way of coping with such interactions.
What helps? Acknowledging that people of colour possess multiple identities without one or the other being particularly apparent on the outside can be a helpful start. Taking the time to understand what they identify with (or how they describe themselves) would make for more accurate understanding and relating. Being curious about someone’s background (as opposed to assuming their identity and background) can be a great way to show appropriate interest in them. Questions can take the form of “hey were you born here in Australia? Where did your folks originally emigrate from?”.
4. Failing to acknowledge inequality and privilege
Another way interracial interactions go awry, is through the denial of inequality or racial privilege in society.
Take for instance a situation where a White colleague might lament the in-custody treatment of Dylan Voller (the Indigenous Australian teenager shown tortured whilst in juvenile custody in a documentary exposé), but disagree about the claim that the justice system is racist towards Aboriginal people.
Where issues of inequality are being discussed, being friendly but denying or expressing ambivalence about inequality and privilege can have negative outcomes for the interaction. People from socially disadvantaged groups are likely to perceive such discussions as less supportive or comforting when structural inequality and privilege is not also acknowledged.
However, people from advantaged groups may feel threatened when they’re reminded about their privilege. They even engage in self-protective strategies to cope with that threat—such as denying their group’s privileged position or distancing themselves from such a position.
So what helps? Understanding the concept of privilege—that individual advantage is different from group advantage—can help ease some of the guilt, discomfort, and defensiveness that acknowledging privilege can evoke. It is important to understand, that we can have and benefit from group-based privilege even if we never asked for it or actively took advantage of it. Explicitly acknowledging inequality and privilege when discussing issues of race or racism, rather than succumbing to the defensiveness, makes for more supportive interactions.
A comedy of cringes
All this cringe-worthy stuff that happens in interracial interactions has been parodied endlessly on YouTube. Because all this awkwardness can sometimes be insanely funny too.
A comedy piece sometimes brings the complexities of social life into sharp focus, in a non-threatening way. So, to end, let’s watch vlogger Jus Reign’s video on…what else? “Shit White people say to brown guys” of course! Click on the image below to watch the hilarious video.
Around the world, people are marching.
They’re marching to overthrow dictators. Some are defending religious viewpoints, or drawing attention to climate change. Others want less immigration, or better working conditions.
Does all this activity really achieve anything? One of the factors that affects movement success is the way that confrontational and moderate groups define themselves and relate to each other, within a broader movement.
When movements define “us” and “them” it affects who wants to join
A movement that garners support from policy makers and the public is in a better position to achieve success.
Movements can grow their supporter base if they pay careful attention to how they position themselves. Framing a movement as aligned with (or opposed to) the broader community’s values and interests has real consequences.
In the short term groups that grow the fastest are often more confrontational. That is to say, they may oppose traditional values or approaches.
We define confrontational groups here as aiming to eliminate a particular behaviour that still has strong support, or to defeat an enemy respected by many. We contrast this with moderate movements, aimed at winning over opponents through persuasion. In both cases, we are referring to non-violent groups aiming for system change – but they don’t always work well together.
A confrontational group grows quickly towards the extremes
Confrontational groups often appeal to people with strong pre-existing views.
A clearly identified problem. A policy strongly condemned. A clearly defined line of attack. These tactics are more likely to appeal to people with strong views. To them, the moderate group may seem waffly or uncommitted.
Clarity of focus often leads to swift success for confrontational groups, because committed activists’ time, energy, and moneys flow to the groups that best express their strong views and values. So they grow quickly.
A confrontational group draws attention to a cause. For many simple problems, this may be enough to achieve social change. But an impasse can be reached when the group needs to reach out to the centre or to opponents to create enough momentum for a breakthrough.
A confrontational group can’t easily compromise
The past strong attacks and views of the confrontational group may have made it unattractive to the unaligned or centre voters, and lead to alienation of their political opponents.
When mistrust and negative views take hold, it is extremely difficult to progress an agenda. Persuasive communication to win over swing voters or opponents may be viewed with scepticism. Genuine attempts to reach out may be seen as insincere or offensive.
Confrontational movements may also be reluctant to entertain the idea of trade-offs with their enemies, because they are defined by their strong, pure rejection of those enemies.
If a conciliatory leader does emerge in a confrontational movement, it may be hard for him or her to gain traction. A conciliatory leader of a confrontational movement sometimes can’t persuade their own group easily to compromise, and they can’t persuade the other group to deal with them either, because of the past history of conflict.
Moderate groups grow slowly toward the centre
With more genuine mutual respect, and less past baggage to carry, the moderates may be both more attractive to uncommitted or centrist members of the public. They are also more able to build trust with political opponents of the cause.
Successful moderates build trust with opponents in part by condemning, tempering, or reining in the savage attacks of more confrontational groups. They also highlight shared values between themselves and their political opponents. These steps create the impression among members of political opponents that moderates are people that can be dealt with.
At the same time, successful moderates have to maintain a clear agenda to make progress towards a stated cause – they have to achieve measurable, clear outcomes. Unless there is both clarity of purpose and progress towards the movement’s ends, moderates may be seen as giving away too much in attempting to obtain leverage.
Confrontational groups should attack the other extreme, not the centre
As moderates achieve frustratingly minute, incremental changes, it is common for moderate groups to attract derision and hostility from confrontational groups for the same cause.
This negativity misunderstands the potential for positive synergies between the two types of groups.
If the confrontational group attacks the moderates, the partisan divide between the sides widens. It is common for stalemates to persist.
Political opponents who are more hostile and polarised can surge to power, dragging the centre away from the movement’s desired change.
The confrontational movement should instead focus its criticism on the other extreme, targeting the most reactionary and hostile members of their political opponents.
By seeking to undermine the most hostile opponents and alienate them from the middle ground, the confrontational movement is well placed to increase the momentum for change.
- Winnifred R. Louis
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This blog builds on some ideas from a chapter that I wrote with some students (Louis, Chapman, Chonu, and Achia, 2017), covering the key themes from a keynote that I gave in Cebu, at the Asian Association of Social Psychology.
Economic growth and environmental degradation: is it possible to have one without the other?
Numerous writers, such as Naomi Klein, have explored the relationship between environmental degradation and capitalism. They often conclude that any economic system requiring continual growth is simply incompatible with living within our environmental limits.
The price our environment is paying in our quest for perpetual economic growth is clear.
Indiscriminate forest clearing for agriculture production. The pollution of our shared climate for private gain. Bulldozing of wetlands for urban expansion. These all show how demands of continual economic growth steadily deplete and degrade the ecosystem services on which we depend.
So should we expect the environmental movement to advocate for a new system of ‘sustainable’ economics?
To answer this question, I studied 510 Australian environmental organisations in early 2017. I looked at a number of features of these groups, including whether they run campaigns on economic issues, or whether they incorporate economic issues in their advocacy. Groups ranged from large transnational foundations to small volunteer action groups, all working on a diverse range of environmental issues.
Results show that few environmental organisations advocate for any significant change in our current economic values.
For example, many organisations undertake grassroots campaigning to influence local policy decisions, such as by campaigning against specific local urban, coastal or resource extraction development. Yet very few organisations advocate for a steady state economy, or implement sustainable economic models such as establishing a not-for-profit social enterprise to support their advocacy activities.
Why might this be so? My work research is uncovering a range of possible reasons:
Despite these barriers, a new way forward has been developing over the last few years.
The dramatic growth of renewable energy cooperatives, community owned enterprises and campaigns such as the international divestment movement offer a beacon of hope.
Such examples of success all share two key features:
(1) They incorporate equitable and environmentally sustainable economic solutions into their campaigns, and
(2) They network and share skills and resources across organisations.
Another cause for hope is in the development of networks such as the New Economy Network Australia. Bringing together research findings from Institutes and Centres with on-the-ground case studies run by small volunteer local groups, these networks will allow the smashing of barriers to create effective economic and environmental change across local, regional, and national boundaries.
The evolution of our first use of currency over 40,000 years ago into the complex and fascinating intricacies of our modern economic system is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. However, this evolution has come at a steep price to our environment.
If you are someone who wants to change our economic values, use this information to join a group or build your own effective campaigns for change. Better yet, join a network and share your findings: be part of the community of change working for a socially, environmentally, and economically just future.
- Robyn Gulliver
Richard Lalonde recently discussed the dangers of focusing on the differences between groups. He says,
“The end result is that we are constantly exposed to information through the lens of social groups, and more often than not, in terms of “us and them.”
Social Identity Theory states that we define ourselves in terms of the different groups that we belong to, for example our nationality, our profession, or our generation. Unfortunately, however, studies exploring Social Identity Theory have shown that we are less accepting of information when it comes from groups of people that we consider to be different to ourselves.
We are less likely to trust information that comes from “them” rather than one of “us”.
This can become a problem when an authority group, like scientists, try to provide information about an important topic, like climate change, to a community group and the community members do not identify with the “scientists”.
Moving from “us” and “them” to “we”
Thankfully, there is way to overcome this bias.
The common in-group identity model proposes that we can ask people to focus on the things that are the same between themselves and others, rather than the things that are different. We can do this by making them aware of a group identity that they share. For example, if “Queenslander” and “Victorian” represent distinct social groups, “Australian” would represent a shared identity.
Essentially, “us” and “them” becomes “we”, which leads to increased trust and more willingness to accept information from the group.
To show how this can work, I conducted a study in 2014 to test the acceptance of information provided by scientists. The information was telling community members from South East Queensland that it is safe to drink water made from recycled waste water. I was trying to see whether the information would be more acceptable when I highlighted that the scientists and the community members shared an identity (i.e., that they all resided in south east Queensland and were therefore all “South East Queenslanders”).
The results showed that it did make the information more effective for those people that identified strongly as “South East Queenslanders”. That is, by making people aware of a shared identity, they were more accepting of the information and were more supportive of the idea of starting a recycled water scheme in south east Queensland.
Create a sense of “we” when communicating information
The take home message? Next time you need to share information with someone, find a social identity that you have in common and make that shared identity obvious in your communications!
By creating more “we” situations, we can help overcome some of the biases to the acceptance of important information.
- Tracy Schultz
Climate change is real, so why the controversy and debate? Often the way science and ideas are communicated affects the response they motivate.
In this interview, I argue climate science communication should be informed by the psychology of persuasion and communication in conflict. I talk through concrete examples of effective and ineffective messaging and the key factors to consider. The ideas I present here are relevant for anyone working in science communication or social change.
Key points include:
Watch the full interview below:
I'd love to hear your feedback. Please leave a comment or a question below and I'll get back to you.
- Winnifred Louis
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? What brought an important issue to your attention? Chances are it was something you saw, rather than something you read.
The right image can be a powerful way capture and engage people with an important issue.
For many of us, the haunting and graphic images of toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore focused our attention on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Yet not all images are created equal. Some are better than others. Some may even hurt your cause.
For example, although they grab our attention, familiar and iconic images used in communications about climate change (i.e., smokestacks, polar bears) fail to make us feel like we can do anything about climate change.
So which images are best?
What properties of images increase the likelihood that the reader will engage with your overall message? My research on images used in communications about sustainable urban stormwater management found that images are more likely to engage when they:
1. Evoke an emotional connection
Images are highly emotive and emotions help shape attitudes. Given that images are the first thing people see on a webpage or news article, they can create a connection with your message before a single word has even been read.
Critically, different emotions can give rise to different motivations. For example, to approach or to avoid. For this reason it is important to select images that evoke emotions what psychologists call an ‘approach motivation’. That is, emotions that encourage the reader to pay attention to your message. Positive emotions, like happiness and pride, are known to have an approach motivation. Some negative emotions, like sadness and anger, can also motivate people to engage with your message. However, you should try to avoid images that elicit emotions with strong avoidance motivations, like disgust and fear. Such emotions may encourage the reader to simply switch off and not pay attention to your message.
2. Relevant to the topic
When presenters use images in presentations that are congruent with what they saying, people are more likely to remember the message. This is because images that are not immediately understood as relevant to the topic reduce the ease with which the viewer can process your message. That is, irrelevant images increase the mental effort needed to process the overall message and can become a distraction.
To avoid using irrelevant images, don’t make assumptions about what your target audience does and doesn’t understand about the issue you are communicating. For example, a cleaner ocean is a major goal of improved urban stormwater management initiatives, so images of ocean environments are often used in communications new stormwater initiatives. Unfortunately, our recent image study found that most people did not think that pictures of oceanic environments were relevant to the topic of stormwater management.
3. Personally relevant
If the viewer sees something in an image that is personally relevant to them, they are more likely to engage with the message content.
To increase the personal relevance of your message, choose images of locations that are highly familiar to your viewer (the more local, the better) or choose photographs of people that your target audience are more likely to identify with. For example, using images of melting ice caps to communicate about climate change suggests that the impacts are happening somewhere else to someone else. Conversely, images of extreme weather events (for example, in Australia, flooding is a major concern), highlight a more localised, and personally relevant, impact of climate change.
- Tracy Schultz
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.