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.
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.