In the early stage of my career, I attended an evening social event arranged as part of an annual meeting of a flagship society in social psychology. Along with a couple of hundred social psychologists and many non-psychologists (if I recall correctly, we shared the event with insurance conference attendees), I sat down to enjoy what promised to be roaring, hilarious comedy show. However, first came the warm-up comedian.
His entire act consisted of jokes about gay and lesbian people. He played on stereotypes, tugged at emotions like disgust, and flamboyantly acted out stereotypic caricatures. My fellow social psychologists and I sat with stunned expressions. I decided to leave, and my route out took me past the stage. Without forethought and in front of everyone, I caught the attention of the comedian and asked, “Do you have a different act? This one is awful! Don’t you have something that isn’t offensive, that doesn’t play on stereotypes?” He responded, “Oh, are you a lesbian?” I stormed out of the room. Others told me that he hobbled to a finish, and the main act that followed was great.
Meanwhile, I was shook. I did not regret speaking up. In addition to being personally committed to egalitarianism and non-prejudice, I knew that research had shown repeatedly that disparaging humor about groups creates, maintains, and perpetuates bias and discrimination. However, what would people think of me? Would I be branded a troublemaker, overly sensitive, and overemotional?
No doubt, part of what spurred me to confront the comedian derived from the fact that I had recently embarked on research concerning the power of confrontation for curbing group-based biases. I have continued this line of research, along with many other researchers, across the past 15 years or so. We now know a good deal about how to navigate successful confrontations.
Confrontation of stereotypes and prejudice is important for two reasons. First, confrontation can help people become aware of their own biases. Often people may not realize they have said or done something that reflects stereotyping or prejudice, and they may be personally motivated to change when a confrontation helps them to become aware of their biases. Second, confrontation makes social norms against bias salient. Even if someone personally has no problem with their biases, a confrontation can signal that such biases are neither socially acceptable nor tolerated. For “the average person” (e.g., excluding extremist hate groups), note is taken of the norms, and the desire to fit in can encourage less biased responding.
The bottom line from confrontation research is that confrontation curbs people’s expressions of bias. For instance, studies have shown that participants who are confronted about their stereotypic inferences (for example, assuming a Black man who is described as being around drugs a lot is a “drug addict” or “criminal” rather than as a “pharmacist” or “doctor”) feel disappointed with themselves and guilty. These emotions motivate them to recognize situations in which they may respond in biased ways later and to redirect to respond in non-biased ways.
However, findings also suggest that some confrontations are more effective at curbing bias than others. When Blacks confront racism, or when women confront sexism, people may dismiss the confronters as overreacting. However, when Whites confront racism, or men confront sexism, they are taken more seriously and are ultimately more effective at curbing others’ bias. This research underscores the critical role that allies can play. People may think, “What would my saying something actually do?” Studies show that speaking up can do much good.
We also find that confrontations of racism curb bias more readily than do confrontations of sexism. Whereas social norms against race bias are very strong, many people (men and women alike) assume they cannot possibly be biased against women (“But I LOVE women!”). Consequently, studies indicate that providing people with evidence that their inferences, judgments, or behaviors actually are unfair and discriminatory is critical to the effectiveness of confrontation in the case of sexism. In my lab, we think of this as a greater burden of proof being required for effective confrontations of sexism.
Finally, studies have revealed one should be assertive in confrontations, and that confrontations with a motivational framing are more effective than simply pointing out bias. For instance, saying, “That’s prejudiced” may even backfire, because people react poorly to having their non-prejudiced self-image impugned. However, what does work is framing a confrontation as having the choice to be fair and egalitarian. For instance, if someone says something stereotypic about Latinx people, you might say, “You may not be aware, but that’s just a stereotype of Latinx people that we see in social media. We can treat people equally by not stereotyping Latinx people in that way.” This sort of statement may lead to dialogue in which the stereotype, fairness, and treating people equally can be discussed further.
Knowing about these findings is important because people are more likely to confront bias if they believe that other people can and often do change. Getting a confrontation started can be challenging; perhaps the opportunity slips by while we consider our words. However, confrontations can occur through conversations that start with, “Wait, what did you say?” and then continue with dialogue that unfolds with the use of assertive but non-threatening language. People also can prepare themselves for confrontation by practicing or role-playing confrontation scenarios.
At this point you may ask, “All of this is fine and good, but what about the costs you mentioned earlier? I can’t afford to be thought of as a troublemaker or as oversensitive!” Studies do indicate that people confronted by a stranger evaluate their confronter more negatively and are less desirous of future interactions, relative to someone who did not confront. However, these negative interpersonal outcomes do not interfere in the least with bias reduction. So yes, there are social costs, which means a question remains: is it more important for you to be liked as much as possible or to have a chance to change their behavior?
So if you are seeking change, be a confronter. As American novelist Margaret Halsey wrote in 1946 in relation to racism, “One of the less dismaying aspects of race relations in the United States is that their improvement is not a matter of a few people having a great deal of courage. It is a matter of a great many people having just a little courage.”
- Guest post by Margo Monteith
Margo J. Monteith grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, attended Moorhead State University (B.A.) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Ph.D.). Her academic posts have been at Texas Tech University (1992-1994), University of Kentucky (1994-2006) and Purdue University (2006-present).
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
(Don't) Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free: Understanding hostile attitudes towards immigration
In the past week, we have seen horrifying pictures from the U.S.-Mexico border where U.S. Border patrol has fired tear gas on asylum seekers from Central America. This is part of a new stance on immigration by the American White House, which includes deploying 5,000 US troops to the southern border, and giving the green light to use lethal force. While many are outraged at the use of such force by the government, others have been quick to defend the “America First” strategy. More broadly, anti-immigration sentiments have been expressed more frequently in a range of countries around the world, from France introducing stricter guidelines for asylum to Australia, where a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment has been reported.
How can we explain antagonistic views towards immigrants and asylum seekers? While understanding perspectives on both sides is complex, recent research sheds light on the challenges associated with the reception of immigrants and refugees in Western countries.
“America First” ... the role of national identities
What we believe about who we are has a strong role in shaping our views of the world. In the U.S., proponents of using excessive force on asylum seekers justify this approach as putting America’s national interests first. What we know from the science is that those who believe being an American is an extremely important part of who they are, in other words, those who have a strong American identity, also are likely to have more negative attitudes towards immigrants.
Is connecting pro-America feelings with hostility to foreigners inevitable though? No.
First, it turns out that the link between stronger American identity and welcoming foreigners can also be positive for some! Americans who define the nation inclusively are more welcoming to newcomers, whereas those who have a narrower view of the country are more hostile.
When we are tough on immigration, are we tough on all immigrants in the same way?
Being tough on immigration is not applied the same way to White immigrants as it is to people of color. In one study, White Americans reported that the use of harsh punishment for a suspected undocumented immigrant was more fair when the suspect was Mexican, than when the suspect was Canadian.
Earlier we spoke about the content of identities, and that discussion is also relevant here. The more people understand being American as being Anglo, the more lenient they are with those who look Anglo. Around the world, the broader and more inclusive our understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country, the more diverse people we would be willing to welcome as new immigrants and refugees.
The language we use has serious consequences
Finally, it is striking how the language used to describe asylum seekers and immigrants by politicians or news media can conjure up images of hordes of animals, scurrying towards us. This type of language is dehumanizing, and research shows it has serious consequences. Endorsing harsher immigration policies is one outcome of dehumanizing language and using dehumanizing language can increase anger and disgust towards immigrants. The use of vermin metaphors to describe Jews during the Holocaust comes to mind when we think of how dehumanizing language has been used to justify atrocities. Indeed, the use of such language is one of the precursors of genocide. Therefore, while news reports describing immigrants in animalistic language may go unnoticed, the reality is that this language has the potential to lead to dire consequences for the world we live in.
The topic of immigration is complicated and the challenges and opportunities of migration are important for both immigrants and the host societies that receive them. An evidence-based approach to understanding the issues and the sentiments on both sides are needed for our societies to move forward to a more socially cohesive and peaceful world.
- Zahra Mirnajafi
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.
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