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Science: Responses to Racism Don’t Meet Expectations
Even though racial prejudice is strongly condemned around the world, blatant acts of racism still occur frequently, and this inconsistency could suggest that, as humans, we do not always reflect how we feel with our behavior. Now, a recent social experiment by Kerry Kawakami from the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto and her colleagues seems to confirm this idea.
In the form of a novel field experiment, these researchers compared peoples' predictions of how they thought they would feel after witnessing a racist situation to how they actually responded to racism in real-life situations.
Their findings, reported in the latest issue of Science, imply that we are not as good at gauging our own emotions as we like to believe.
In their experiment, Kawakami and her colleagues asked a large group of non-black individuals (the forecasters) how they would feel if they witnessed prejudice against a black individual. Then, they tested a separate group of non-black people (the witnesses) to see how they actually react after witnessing racism towards a black person.
The mock victim of this racism was aware of the objectives of the experiment, but the results still demonstrate that few of the witnesses to racism actually reacted as the forecasters predicted they would.
After the forecasters made their predictions about how they would react to an anti-black slur, the separate group of witnesses were led into a room and introduced, one by one, to a black and a white "confederate," both posing as fellow participants in the study. After a brief moment with each witness, the black confederate would excuse himself from the room to retrieve his cell phone, and gently brush into the white confederate on his way out of the room.
For a control group of witnesses, this incident would pass without comment. But for two other groups of witnesses, the white confederate would make a racist comment about the black confederate. In front of one group of witnesses, the comment was "moderately racist," and in front of the other group, the comment was "extremely racist."
Moments later, the black confederate would return to the room, and the experiment would proceed. The witnesses completed a brief questionnaire to determine their mood at the time, and were then asked to choose either the white or the black confederate to work with for the next portion of the study.
Whereas most of the forecasters had predicted feeling repulsed by the racist comment and stated that they would shun the racist offender, only a small percentage of the witnesses did what was predicted of them and chose the black confederate to work with.
In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that racism may persist in part because people who believe they would take action in the face of a racist act may actually respond with indifference when the situation arises. They acknowledge that these findings can be interpreted in many ways, and they even offer alternative explanations of their results.
For example, the non-black forecasters might have recognized the social sensitivity of the issue and responded in ways they believed to be acceptable, rather than admitting their true feelings.
However, the authors say that forecasters were assured of their anonymity, and that these findings might provide important information on actual responses to racism that could help to create personal awareness and inform interventions.
8 January 2009