Study Finds Whites Anxious About Race

Don Imus

Don Imus appeared on a radio program hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was one of the chief critics of Imus after the white anchor made racially charged comments in April 2007. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A new study from Northwestern University's Department of Social Psychology finds that many whites worry about inadvertently getting into trouble for seeming biased. As a result, says study author Jennifer Richeson, Caucasians seek to avoid situations where bias might be revealed, such as in the company of black people.

Richeson, an associate professor at Northwestern University, says her research measured biases that 30 white subjects had against black images. She says the biases, even subtle ones, were enough to make those white subjects so afraid of being branded as racist, they indicated a preference for avoiding all contact with black people.

White anxiety, Richeson says, is an ironic byproduct of increased racial diversity on campuses, in offices and within communities. She says people who've had little experience with interracial interactions don't feel comfortable in new, sometimes daunting situations — and that avoidance and anxiety are the unfortunate results. "This anxiety precludes the encounters that would actually let people explore new interactions," she says.

How to make interracial interactions less anxious? "We need to get out of the business of giving the scarlet letter brand of 'bigot,' " Richeson says. That type of label is really not useful, she says, citing the example of Don Imus drawing fire for racially charged comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team in 2007. Imus later met with the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of his most vocal critics, and insisted he's not a racist.

"I think, in general, we need to be a little bit more generous," Richeson says. "There's nothing wrong with vigilance ... We get stopped at, 'You said this, you said that, you're a racist.' There's no place to go from there."

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