Friday, March 20, 2009

Confronting Racism and Apathy

By Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

Despite the intense stigma that the label of ‘racist’ carries, racism continues to pervade our society, including many not-so-subtle manifestations. A recent study published in Science magazine sought to understand why blatant racism persists in spite of the strong condemnation that accompanies overt prejudice by considering how individuals respond when they witness an incident of racism. Using an experimental design with multiple conditions, an inconsistency emerged. While participants anticipated feeling upset and taking action when witnessing a racial slur, in reality they experienced less emotional distress than they had predicted, often reacting with indifference.

While professed egalitarian values led participants to foresee feeling distressed when witnessing a racial slur, the spontaneous responses they exhibited often failed to align with these values. Researchers concluded that, “despite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions, one reason why racism and discrimination remain so prevalent in society may be that people do not respond to overt acts of racism in the way that they anticipate: They fail to censure others who transgress these egalitarian norms.”

Two points:

1) Studies such as this focus largely on racism at an individual level. Declaring that the racism that continues to exist in society may be a byproduct of individuals’ actions (or, in this case, inactions) ignores the larger structures, policies, and practices that affect people’s lives. Recognition of interpersonal racial bias within a larger context of institutional forces provides a more comprehensive view of how and why racism subsists.

2) This study provokes questions regarding the causes that underlie this failure to react to a racial slur. Why is it that people who may have the best of intentions are apathetic when the situation arises? The authors speculate that some of this hesitation can be attributed to the expense of mental and emotional energy necessary to address the situation, or that participants may have reconstrued the slur as a joke or harmless comment in an effort to counteract the negative emotions activated by the slur. I would assume that other factors influence the decision for inaction outside of an experimental setting, including feeling unequipped to adequately address race or uncertain about how the other individual may respond. Regardless of the justification, this study reminds us that we need to deliberately act on our egalitarian values in order to bring those principles to fruition.
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1 comment:

  1. Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.
    It may be defined as the hatred of one person by another -- or the belief that another person is less than human -- because of skin color, language, customs, place of birth or any factor that supposedly reveals the basic nature of that person. It has influenced wars, slavery, the formation of nations, and legal codes.