How ambiguous racism can be more harmful than the blatant variety

Ambiguous racism is more detrimental to African American students’ performance on a mental task than is blatant racism, psychologists have shown. By contrast, the reverse is true for White students, for whom blatant racism is more distracting.

Jessica Salvatore and Nicole Shelton say their results reflect the fact that Black students have coping mechanisms at hand to deal with blatant prejudice, but are more distracted by an ambiguous scenario. “Uncertainty about others’ prejudice leaves marginalised individuals unable to discern which coping strategies would be most appropriate to the situation,” they said.

The researchers asked 250 Princeton undergrads to read fictitious job candidates’ CVs, and the hiring decisions of the pretend company they had applied for. Shortly afterwards the students completed the famous Stroop test, which measures cognitive control by repeatedly asking participants to name the ink colour a word is written in, while ignoring the colour name spelt out by the letters.

The Black students’ performance suffered more after they read about a White employer selecting an inferior White candidate over a better qualified Black candidate (ambiguous racism), compared with when they read about a White employer saying they had rejected a superior Black candidate because he had been a member of too many minority organisations (blatant racism).

However, for White students it was the blatant racism that was more distracting. The researchers said this was because the White students weren’t used to dealing with overt racism and didn’t even notice the ambiguous racism.

Salvatore, J. & Shelton, J.N. (2007). Cognitive costs of exposure to racial prejudice. Psychological Science, 18, 810-815.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “How ambiguous racism can be more harmful than the blatant variety”

  1. I don’t know what to think. A single study does not persuade me. Yet, I know racism is still occurring. If a candidate can prove this kind of bias, they might prevail. There should be laws against such practices. Therefore, can a demonstrated, better qualified minority candidates explore such issues? That is a valid question. Perhaps these questions are difficult to uncover. As such, a open door policy should be legislated. I cannot perceive of another option. Concerned citizens should insist upon such legislation. I would be interested in hearing a better option. Is not the true question what to do about such practices. Responsible party’s should be summarily fired, as a function of law. As well,fines should be levied against companies that allow this kind of practice.

  2. This single study rings true to life. It is by far the most common form of racism. Minorities uncertain about their social status and identity are particularly vulnerable. Implicit racism, at the root of ambiguity, is easier for white people to deny but catches them unprepared to admit the truth and results in “color blind” posturing and self-righteously accusing minorities of playing the “race card.” (It's like the referee penalizing player's response to illegal blow.) Everyone should take the Implicit Association Test as a start to correct ambiguous racism (Project Implicit website).

  3. This rings true to my own experience. White guy in a black college, white guy managing a Latino hog farm and learning to habla, white guy teaching English in China, white guy living in Thailand, white guy living in Hanoi. I'm so much more likely to go off about blatant racism than my brothers or my amigos.

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