How would you respond if you heard a racist slur?

How would respond if you heard someone being racist? If you’re one of the majority who openly condemn racism, then you probably think you’d be perturbed and that you’d reject or reprimand the racist in some way. However, a new study by psychologists in Canada has found that students were largely unmoved when they heard a racist slur, and most of them failed to reject the perpetrator.

Dozens of multi-ethnic (but not black) students at York University in Canada were fooled into thinking that a white participant (actually an actor) in their group had responded in a racist way after a black participant (another actor) accidentally knocked his knee. Specifically, the white student participant was heard to say either: “Typical, I hate it when black people do that” or: ““clumsy *igger”. In a control condition, no comment was made.

Afterwards, a brief mood questionnaire embedded among other irrelevant measures, showed that the students who heard one of the racist remarks were no more upset than the participants who heard no comment. Moreover, when asked to choose either the black or white participant to be their partner in a subsequent task, the majority of them chose the white participant, despite what he’d said.

By contrast, dozens of other students from the same University, who were randomly selected to imagine, but not participate in, these events, predicted that they would be distressed at hearing the racist comments and most said that they would subsequently choose the black participant to be their partner, rather than the racist white person.

A possible explanation for the mismatch could be that it is our non-conscious attitudes that influence our behaviour in a real situation – perhaps we harbour some latent racist beliefs – whereas we rely more our more conscious and deliberate attitudes when it comes to predicting how we’ll behave.

“…despite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions,” Kerry Kawakami and colleagues said, “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”.

Kerry Kawakami, Elizabeth Dunn, Francine Karmali, John F. Dovidio (2009). Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to RacismScience, 323, 276-278

Link to podcast interview with lead author.

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

10 thoughts on “How would you respond if you heard a racist slur?”

  1. <>perhaps we harbour some <>latest<> racist beliefs – whereas we rely more our more conscious and deliberate attitudes when it comes to predicting how we’ll behave.<>I suppose you mean ‘latent’, right?Interesting study. It has been suggested that humans are naturally racist, and if this is so then it would perhaps make sense that there is a disconnect between how racist remarks are perceived subconsciously vs. consciously.

  2. Does this really surprise anyone considering that ignoring these comments, however disagreable, is actually very prudent. Ignoring an obnoxious comment is a practical skill for modern interpersonal coexistence. It seems to makes sense that these same people would “reject” a bigot on paper but not in practice.

  3. As the commenter above says, it would be expected that many people are afraid to object. But that could be measured, at least in principle, couldn’t it?

  4. Its can’t simply be a case of ignoring a racist comment simply because you are afriad to say anything or because we live in a society where we’re brought up to ignore such comments because that doesn’t explain why participants chose the white person to be their partner over the black person. These findings are quite disturbing.

  5. I think because we know everyone has a stereotypical view on cultures and objects, even if its a mild or severe usage. So when it came to choosing a partner, the language used and the dress code, which are not mentioned, and are important when viewing an individual, have considerable weights towards the choice.As anonymous said above, about a ‘practical skill’ I totally agree but am still hesitant about whether its morality is valid enough. We all have a right to stand up for anything we do not believe in, as to anyone caring or supporting you it for those people to decide. I always make sure when one expresses a recist comment, I make sure I express my opinion on the matter. This has caused some friction at times but racism is massively understated and has to be stopped. As soon as racism is halted the world will be a nicer place to live.

  6. Choosing a partner perhaps depends on how we view ourselves. If we feel we are not racist, it eliminates a need to choose a black working partner to prove it. Or possibly these folks were just choosing someone they perceived as more like themselves.Re. responding to the slur. In my experience, we don’t confront such racism head-on due to the overt and uncomfortable conflict it promotes between peers. However, I think a typical reaction might be to think “Did you just really say that? Holy crap!” and to distance oneself from the racist.On an evolutionary scale there’s an advantage to be had from co-operation, so if people withdraw from you because of your xenophobia, then you lose that edge.

  7. Today we celebrated the inauguartion of our 44th U.S. President. Maybe this a sign that racism and discrimination is on the decline. Maybe.

  8. We all belong to the same race regardless of the color of our skin. The main reason why nobody said anything is because we live in a very selfish and egotistical day and age where nobody really cares about nobody. If someone actually heard the white guy say “Nigga” – someone including a teacher should have said something but that's just where our culture indifference kicks in. Example “Who cares, it's not my problem”. The reason why nobody chose the black guy is sad – they would have been scared. And the though of that is scary. God help us human beings – we're becoming stupider and stupider.

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