Confronting Racism

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Science  01 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5927, pp. 590-591
DOI: 10.1126/science.324_590c

In their Report (“Mispredicting affective and behavioral responses to racism,” 9 January, p. 276), K. Kawakami et al. showed that non-black research participants (termed “experiencers”) did not respond particularly negatively when they heard a white person make a racist comment about a black person. In contrast, other participants required to forecast what their responses would be in this situation (“forecasters”) predicted relatively more emotional distress and social rejection in response to the racist comment. I would like to offer my interpretation of their findings.

Experiencers may have reported not their initial reaction, but an emotional state resulting from their efforts to cope with a stressful situation. Especially in unfocused interpersonal situations (e.g., in a waiting room or elevator), tolerant or egalitarian people attempt to cope with their automatic responses to others perceived as deviant by controlling and concealing these responses. This process tends to result in heightened self-consciousness, tension, and awkwardness, which may not be visible in self-reported emotions (1). Hearing the racist remark could considerably add to the experienced stress and perhaps the resulting regulatory efforts. Hence, experiencers may not be as indifferent to the racist comment as they seemed, and forecasters may not have been as inaccurate as suggested by Kawakami et al.

Furthermore, experiencers may not have confronted the person who made the remark because they feared retaliation or the return of the victim. Kawakami et al. found that reported distress in relation to the racist comment was positively related with seeking contact with the black victim, evidence that experiencers may have been motivated by protective tendencies.

In modern Western society, tolerant and generally caring individuals are trained to look the other way when confronted with deviance, and hence may feel overwhelmed when confronted with racist or other hurtful acts. To combat this, we should work to provide people with effective coping strategies rather than making them more aware of their apparent failure to predict their own emotional reactions.


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