Why Insisting You’re Not Racist May Backfire

Summary: Study reveals white people often send out the opposite message when they try to explain they are not racist.

Source: UC Berkeley

When you insist you’re not racist, you may unwittingly be sending the opposite message.

That’s the conclusion of a new study* by three Berkeley Haas researchers who conducted experiments with white participants claiming to hold egalitarian views. After asking them to write statements explaining why they weren’t prejudiced against Black people, they found that other white people could nevertheless gauge the writers’ underlying prejudice.

“Americans almost universally espouse egalitarianism and wish to see themselves as non-biased, yet racial prejudice persists,” says Berkeley Haas Asst. Prof. Drew Jacoby Senghor, one of the authors. “Our results suggest that the explicit goal of appearing egalitarian might blind people to the possibility that they could be communicating, and perpetuating, prejudicial attitudes.”

Co-authored by Derek Brown, PhD 24, and Michael Rosenblum, PhD 20–a post-doctoral scholar at NYU Stern School of Business–the study builds on past research finding people’s racial prejudice “leaks out” through nonverbal behavior, such as facial expressions or physical distance. In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers looked at perceptions based solely on written content.

This shows a woman
“This demonstrates that peoples’ use of the cues are meaningful not only for how prejudice is expressed, but also how egalitarianism is perceived,” said Brown. Image is in the public domain

They selected a group of white participants, screening out the small percentage who expressed overt prejudice, and scored subjects’ racial attitudes with two widely used assessments. The subjects were then asked: “Do you believe that all people are equal and should have equality of opportunity? Why or why not?,” and “Are you prejudiced toward Black people? Why or why not?” A second group of white participants, asked to read the written responses, accurately estimated how the writers had scored on the prejudice scale.

Linguistic cues

In a second experiment to parse out whether people were signaling racial attitudes intentionally or inadvertently, they asked one group to answer as honestly as possible and another group to answer “in the least prejudiced way possible.” There was no difference to the readers, who accurately scored both groups’ answers.

“That gave us some confidence that people are naturally trying to come across as egalitarian, but something about the language they choose is betraying them,” Rosenblum said.

What were those linguistic cues? The most powerful indicator, they found, was language that dehumanized or objectified African Americans–for example, “I have a great relationship with the Blacks.” Other characteristics such as defensiveness, references to personal responsibility, or a belief that equal opportunity exists were strongly associated with higher levels of prejudice, and cues such as focus on equity or an acknowledgement that inequality exists were associated with lower levels of prejudice. Interestingly, references to being colorblind or mentions of personal contact with Black people weren’t indicative of the white participants’ attitudes.

“This demonstrates that peoples’ use of the cues are meaningful not only for how prejudice is expressed, but also how egalitarianism is perceived,” said Brown.

Contagion effect

A third experiment had a sobering result. The researchers found that white participants reported greater prejudice towards Black people after reading statements from the self-avowed white egalitarians who scored high on underlying prejudice. In other words, the readers mirrored the attitudes of the writers, even when they identified themselves as ideologically dissimilar (conservative vs liberal).

“We don’t know reading other people’s views gave them permission to express more prejudice, or whether they thought that this is the norm and their actual prejudice level changed, but there seemed to be a contagion effect,” Rosenblum said. “One of the lessons here is that words carry weight. It does seem that this is one way that prejudice is unwittingly spread.”

About this racism and psychology research news

Source: UC Berkeley
Contact: Laura Counts – UC Berkeley
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Not all egalitarianism is created equal: Claims of nonprejudice inadvertently communicate prejudice between ingroup members” by Drew Jacoby Sengho et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology


Not all egalitarianism is created equal: Claims of nonprejudice inadvertently communicate prejudice between ingroup members

Caucasian-Americans’ manner of expressing egalitarianism may inadvertently communicate racial prejudices to ingroup members. Despite most hypothesizing the contrary (Preliminary Study),

Caucasian-American perceivers were able to infer ingroup targets’ underlying racial attitudes using only targets’ written claims of being egalitarian (Experiment 1; N = 256) and regardless of whether targets had the goal to be honest or as unprejudiced as possible (Experiment 2; N = 456).

A Brunswikian lens analysis identified several linguistic cues associated with perceiver accuracy. Language humanizing African-Americans was especially strongly associated with both targets’ underlying attitudes and perceivers’ inferences of targets’ underlying attitudes.

Experiment 3 (N = 811) revealed that Caucasian-Americans’ egalitarian statements communicate racial attitudes in an epidemiological sense: Perceivers reported higher racial prejudice after being exposed to egalitarian statements from targets higher, versus lower, in underlying prejudice, regardless of whether perceiver and target had congruent or incongruent political identifications.

Therefore, egalitarian declarations may ironically perpetuate inegalitarian attitudes.

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  1. I am NOT white. I am of Caucasian origin. Africans are not black – they, like all other humans, are various shades of brown.
    I am not racist — I care not one whit about your racial origins. But I do judge people by the way they behave and treat other.
    If an Aboriginal person yells at me and calls me whitey – then it is THEY who are racist.
    When the American of African descent told my niece (of part African descent) to “Get our Whitey” it is they who are racist.
    I am not racist — I care not one whit about your racial origins. But I do judge people by the way they behave and treat other.
    I DO have a problem with many people of various religions. I DO have a problem with immigrants who choose to come to Australia and then try to impose their religious beliefs by trying to change our legislation.
    I am strongly against legislation to give ‘dispensations’ from the law for people of certain ethnic or religious beliefs.

    1. I’m wondering why you wrote this self-defense. Seems odd to do so here. No one called you a racist. This is just a report on a study that shows there are linguistic cues to racism. If you don’t like the method, I get it, but that is not what you wrote about.

  2. What nonsense. Why is it only white people who have to prove they are not racist? Racism usually is only a problem because the media, government and democrats always introduce the topic of race into everything they talk about. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. You can not assume someone is a racist based on their color or gender or anything other personal attribute.

    1. What an odd comment to put on a research paper announcement, and then politicizing it. Are you the same person who wrote the comment above this one?

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