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A Canadian-Led Study Sheds Light on the Mental Undercurrents of a Diverse Society

January 12, 2009

Hypothetically, you’re a student at York University and you’ve signed up to participate in a psychology experiment. You’re going to be asked to choose a partner, with whom you’ll complete a task involving anagrams. For now you’re waiting for the process to get underway along with your two potential partners, a white man and a black man.

The black man gets up and leaves the room to retrieve his cell phone, which he apparently left somewhere. In the process, however, he gently bumps the white man’s knee.

“Clumsy nigger,” the white man remarks, after the black man has left the room.

Shortly thereafter, the black man returns and sits back down. So… which of them do you choose as your anagram-solving partner?

In a recently published scientific study, researchers led by the York psychologist Kerry Kawakami described essentially this scenario to a pool of volunteers, and asked them how they would expect themselves to react. A substantial majority of the volunteers said they would choose the black man as their partner, rather than the apparently racist white man. This also held true when “clumsy nigger” was replaced by a supposedly milder statement (“Typical, I hate it when black people do that”).

With a different set of volunteers, designated “experiencers” as opposed to the “forecasters” who had merely responded to the description, Kawakami and her colleagues went further and actually staged the partner-selection scenario. Confederates of the researchers posed as the white racist and the black knee-bumper. Each unsuspecting experiencer saw the black man get up, bump the white man, and leave the room. The white man either remained silent or responded with one of the two racist statements.

Perhaps surprisingly, the experiencers reacted less strongly than might have been expected from the statements of the forecasters. When the time came to choose an anagram-solving partner, 63% of the experiencers who heard one racist statement or the other actually chose the white man. When the white man said nothing, he was chosen by only 53%. At face value, this would indicate that the experiencers tended to react positively to racist language, if anything.

I’m not sure how much this research tells us about the success, or otherwise, of Canada’s great demographic experiment in welcoming large numbers of immigrants from around the world. In their paper (“Mispredicting affective and behavioral responses to racism”, Science 323: 276-278), Kawakami and her colleagues interpreted the experiencers’ apparent indifference to racist statements as resulting from either “their own ambivalent racial attitudes”, at least at a subconscious level, or “their own ability to reconstrue bad situations in the best possible light” (e.g. assuming that the white man was probably just joking). The first possibility would imply a certain amount of tension and hostility under the surface of our supposedly egalitarian society, whereas the second would merely suggest that Canadians are nice, thoughtful people who understand that there may be more than one explanation for an apparently racist remark. Perhaps the correct answer is a bit of both.


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    January 17, 2009 11:11 am

    Renee — Hypersensitivity, like offensiveness, is definitely in the eye of the beholder. However, I do object to the proposition that people who are near the sensitive end of the spectrum should be allowed to impose their standards of public discourse on the rest of us.

    The British press has been squealing in recent days about a couple of remarks Prince Harry made, on separate occasions, while joking around with fellow soldiers. You can read about the details here: basically he called one comrade-in-arms “our little Paki friend”, and commented that another looked like a “raghead”. There’s no indication at all that anyone was offended at the time, or that there was any malicious or insulting intention. Personally, I think it’s great that we have a young prince who is prepared, like his grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh, to blaspheme against the gospels of political correctness now and then. Royalty is at its best when displaying a bit of cavalier spirit.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    January 15, 2009 4:19 pm

    Interesting post, Cor and exchange as above in comments section. I’ve missed the recent Prince Harry remarks – HRH seems to have a bit of an “interesting” track record – recall his costume at a party a few years (?) back…or have i got that wrong…not sure about “hyper sensitive” – a relative term, surely?

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    January 14, 2009 9:30 am

    I agree that other explanations are certainly possible. My own favourite pet speculation is that many of the volunteers in the experiment might have picked up on the fact that the knee-bump was deliberate, and interpreted it as an aggressive (and presumably off-putting) gesture. Your suggestion about authority seems very plausible as well.

    Precisely because of these uncertainties, I’m reluctant to read too many sweeping implications into the results of the experiment. However, it does suggest that Canadians – or at least York University students – are less hypersensitive to racially charged language than, say, the British journalists who have been directing howls of outrage at Prince Harry over the past couple of days.

  4. January 12, 2009 4:10 pm

    i see lots of other likely explanations for the apparent preference for racist statements.

    one example – isn’t it also possible that that kind of language still reminds us of a version of masculinity we find authoritative, and therefore appealing in problem-solving situations, even if only on a subconscious level? i would be curious to see the experiment repeated with women participants, or where students had to chose a partner for a different type of activity.

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