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Cultural background impacts response to racist comments

Heather Rudow April 13, 2012


A person’s cultural background could affect how he or she receives a racial insult, according to a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Our work shows that racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds are sources of diversity that may explain why different targets of racism behave the way they do,” said co-author Elizabeth Lee.

The researchers found that black women are more likely than Asian-American women to directly confront a racial epithet and that it may be rooted in differences between the two cultures.

The study builds on previous work showing distinct differences across people from different cultures regarding conflict management, communication style and emotional display rules:

“In one experiment, the researchers recruited Asian women and black women to talk to another college student online using Instant Messenger (IM). The conversation partner was actually a research assistant trained to make either a racist comment, like ‘Dating [blacks/Asians] is for tools who let [blacks/Asians] control them,’ or a parallel non-racist but still rude comment. Participants then took part in what seemed like an unrelated taste test study to choose a candy for their conversation partner to eat. The participants could choose from an array of jellybeans that included good tasting (e.g. cherry, lemon) and bad tasting (e.g. earwax, dirt) jellybeans. The researchers analyzed the conversations to measure how directly the participants responded to the offensive comment. They also took note of the jellybean flavors selected for the conversation partners as a measure of as an indirect way of responding to the conversation partner … A second study had a different set of black and Asian participants imagine having a conversation with a stranger who makes a racist comment. The researchers then asked them about their anticipated response to the comment and their goals for their imagined behavior.”

Says Lee of the first experiment: “The results of this study showed that African Americans were more likely to respond more directly when we looked at the transcripts of the IM conversations. However, this difference in responding style goes away when you look at what kinds of jellybeans they gave the offending conversation partner. For the Asian women, the jellybean selection served as an indirect way to respond to the racist comment — a sort of quiet revenge.”

The results of the second experiment showed that the Asian Americans were more likely to say they would directly respond, driven by a desire to keep peace with the person they were interacting with.

“The goals we were interested in were based on the norms that should be sanctioned by either African-American or Asian-American culture for these kinds of situations,” Lee said.

According to the researchers, “Our findings are consistent with black women’s cultural heritage, which celebrates the past accomplishments of other black confronters of discrimination, as well as Asian women’s heritage, which advises finding expedient resolutions in the name of peaceful relations.”

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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1 Comment

  1. Hilda R. Davis, Ph.D, L.P.C.

    Dear Heather:
    Thank you for an informative article. As a Black woman my experience reflects the findings of this study.
    I am disappointed, however, in the choice of picture for this article.
    This bright and lovely young Black woman has a very casual and stereotyped appearance, “handkerchief wearing Black woman.”

    I would have expected a photo that reflects the content of the article.
    Images matter. Just wanted to suggest your article might have been enhanced by a more descriptive and thoughtful photo.
    Thank you.


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