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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Back in March, presidential hopeful Barack Obama spoke about race, and revealed some uncomfortable truths within his own family.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): My white grandmother, a woman who helped raised me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her by on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

MARTIN: Obama's speech was heralded as an historic moment in America, opening the door for honest, national conversation about America's racial realities, but talking openly about race in this country isn't easy. Now a new psychology study says it's especially difficult for white Americans, when they are in a racially mixed group, to speak openly about anything race related for fear of being labeled racist.

MIKE PESCA, host:

The study measured biases that 30 white subjects had against black images. The biases, even subtle ones, were enough to make those white subjects so afraid of being thought racist that they'd rather avoid all contact with black people.

MARTIN: To find out more, we spoke with Jennifer Richeson. She's an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, and she coauthored that study, "The Threat of Appearing Prejudiced and Race-Based Attentional Biases." Jennifer, thanks for joining us.

Dr. JENNIFER RICHESON (Social Psychology, Northwestern University; Study Coauthor, "The Threat of Appearing Prejudiced and Race-based Attentional Biases"): Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, Jennifer, your thesis, as I understand it, was people are self-editing to such a degree that they end up avoiding subjects that are going to make them uncomfortable altogether, and more often than not, these have to do with race and that that inherently is bad. Why?

Dr. RICHESON: Yes, I mean, the real argument is that we have almost been focused so much on how racial bias affects interracial interactions, or what people say and do, and not that we should not focus on racial bias, you know, we should stop focusing on that, because there clearly are bigots still out there.

But there's also these other concerns that have come to the fore, in part because of the racial progress that we've made, where people are concerned about appearing prejudiced, and some people respond with a lot of anxiety. And what we're arguing is that this anxiety, then, precludes the very diverse encounters that would lead people to actually become less biased.

MARTIN: You point out that a lot of this is because, for the most part, Americans work in a much more diverse racial landscape than ever before, and so you're coming in to contact with people who don't share your skin color. That's a good thing.

Dr. RICHESON: That's a good thing. Yeah, it is, and it is a good thing for us to be concerned about what is better. I mean, it is certainly - you know, you have to kind of think back to what it might have been like before. I mean, certainly in corporations, you can see this sort of sexism all the time, when there were very few women, or only woman were in sort of support roles, you know, as secretaries, the men who worked there could say whatever they wanted, and there was absolutely no sanction for doing so.

And in order to bring more people in, more women in, people who were, you know, different in the organizations had to mandate some new norms, some new standards and that was very good, really important. The only thing that happened is that some people respond to these new norms with uncertainty about what they can and cannot do, and we know that there are very strong social sanctions for getting it wrong around issues of race and certainly issues of gender. I mean, people get - you know, they lose their jobs, right? I mean, we sort of have this whole Don Imus thing.

We repeatedly see, you know, these events that become held up for public scrutiny, where people are almost, you know, kind of almost - I often say to my students, you might get kicked off of the morality island, you know, for saying the wrong thing. And it's that kind of anxiety about the possibility of messing up to that degree, and that's what we are saying is holding people back from even engaging in interracial anything, in diverse anything.

MARTIN: Do you have - were you able to extract any kind of anecdotes, Jennifer, with the people that you talked to, about some specific examples of when a white person was in a situation where they had a thought that ordinarily they would have said it, had it been an all-white group, but because there was a black person in the room, they didn't say it?

Dr. RICHESON: Oh, I mean, it happens all the time. We don't have this in the study, but I teach a class on the psychology of stereotyping prejudice, and we have these conversations all the time where students say that, you know, they sometimes don't even want to watch certain television shows if it is a mixed audience, because you don't know whether or not people would respond to the humor in the same way. You know, you almost have to wait until, you know, the people who are - maybe if there are black people watching, do they laugh? OK, then maybe I can laugh. You know, I mean, there's a lot of anxiety around, you know, doing the wrong things.

PESCA: The other effect of turning race into the third rail of American conversation, which is basically what you are talking about...

Dr. RICHESON: Mm hm.

PESCA: Is that if all overt racism goes underground, there's the possibility that even a slight misstep, or bubbling up of some sort of word that, you know, someone could take the wrong way, is interpreted as real racism. So...

Dr. RICHESON: Absolutely.

PESCA: Perhaps it's not only a problem among the white community. Perhaps the black community is convinced that there's a lot more racism than there is. Just because they don't hear it overtly, they figure, well, it all must have gone underground, as opposed to thinking much of it must have dissipated.

Dr. RICHESON: Right. I mean, it becomes an entire problem, right? Because if you don't know what it's going to look like, or you only have kind of, the very few, sort or real bigots, and then everybody else, well, what do we call everybody else? You know, and I think we need to get out of the business of, sort of you know, giving the scarlet-letter brand of bigot on people, until - except for the people, who really are, right? And for most part, we're not. I mean, none of my participants are sort of Klan-robe-wearing bigots in the way that we used to think about them.

And so, that type of branding is really not useful, and certainly not useful to forward a conversation. What we're really dealing with are people who often have very little experience with interracial interaction, first of all, but also are just forming their attitudes, or you know - or even those who aren't, you know, or just kind of seeing, well, you know, what do I think? They might be challenging their attitudes, and having this conversation might be what gets them there. I think in general we probably need to be a little bit more generous.

PESCA: So, Jennifer, if you were to advise a local chapter of the NAACP or Al Sharpton's National Action Network, there - which is going to happen, I'm sure. They'll have you on the (unintelligible).

Dr. RICHESON: I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: There are two schools of thought, right? One is that you have to be vigilant, and you have to call it out whenever you see something that is institutional racism, or you know, a powerful person in the media maybe doing something that's racist. The other side is if you call it out, and you're very vocal about every single situation, you get the - you get what you're describing, which is so many people just shut themselves down. How would you advise someone who wants to both be vigilant, but on the other hand, not quash the conversation?

Dr. RICHESON: Well, I mean, I think that there's nothing wrong with the vigilance, actually. And I think that if anything, we need to be more vigilant about our own behavior and our own thoughts and hold ourselves accountable. In fact, I don't think there's anything wrong with accountability. What I do think has become the problem is that we just get stopped at, you, oh, said that, or you did that, you're a racist. Right? And then - where do you go from there? You know, and there's no place to go from there, so I think...

PESCA: I think you have to go on Al Sharpton's radio show. You have to apologize.

Dr. RICHESON: And you need to go and apologize, exactly.

PESCA: And then maybe the BET network, yeah.

Dr. RICHESON: If they would know - I really have some black friends who are really - my heart is not - so I think that the problem is that our model of bigotry is wrong. Our model is, you're either a good person or a bad person, and if you're a good person, you can't possibly be biased, you know.

And maybe if you're a bad person, you kind of are - or maybe bias shows that you're a bad person. And that's just a wrong model. It turns out that you can actually be biased in the ways that we're talking about, these sort of - these subtle, you know, biases that people have, the stereotypes that we all have in our heads, that, you know, you can be that and be a really good person.

MARTIN: Well, because those words are inherently different. I mean, a bigot is very different from the word prejudice.

Ms. RICHESON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Those are completely different words.

Dr. RICHESON: Right. Right. And I mean, we've made them into mean even more than they probably needed to mean. To begin with, where we have this set image of what that means, and I think we need to let that go, because for the most part, that's not what we're dealing with. And so the only alternative we have is to keep proving ourselves to be good people, right?

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. RICHESON: And if we're good people, that means we're certainly not biased. And that does nothing to actually make us less biased. It just makes us feel better about the biases that we deny that we have.

PESCA: You know, a version - a version of what you're saying is playing out on the presidential campaign, where Hillary Clinton's backers are saying, you know, if this - if these sort of attacks were aimed at a black woman or a black man, no one would stand for it, because race is the third rail of politics. So it's almost as if every aggrieved party says, well, why can't we, you know, be like the African-American community where you can't say anything bad about them? They almost want to have their special status, whatever it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Become the third rail.

Dr. RICHESON: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I mean,- and when I hear that argument - and I think that there is some truth to that, but I don't think that that's necessarily where we want to adjudicate these questions of how to sort of rid our politics (unintelligible) our society from the vestiges of sexism or racism.

MARTIN: Yeah. There's something really distasteful about trying to measure which is less offensive.

PESCA: Yeah. The victim Olympics, or something like that.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Dr. RICHESON: Exactly. It just doesn't - it doesn't work, I mean, I think the - and that's been part of the problem with the analysis, I think, of the presidential race is that, you know, there's this assumption that we can, you know, reduce these candidates to either their race or their gender, you know, whatever they happen to be the minority on, but the truth is that they have different challenges, because of the way that sexism works and the way that racism works, and so they're not even battling in the same lane or on the same track. It's not that they're, you know, kind of on a parallel track and whoever gets there first, then that's how we know which one is worse or which one is better. They're not even on the same track.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Dr. RICHESON: And they have very different issues to contend with as a function of racism. I mean, racism doesn't really say that someone can't be commander-in-chief the way that sexism does. But sexism doesn't make the argument that, can you be the face of America? Are you American enough? Do you represent us? In the way that racism does, right? So they're not even battling the same hurdles, right, is - I guess to keep my track metaphor going.

PESCA: Right. I'm thinking one's trying to tread through shark-infested waters, and the other's trying to tread through, like, lions in the jungle or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RICHESON: Maybe, yeah, I don't know.

PESCA: It's a different topography.

Dr. RICHESON: Although I'm sure there's some, like, you know, racial metaphor that can be used for that, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Right, right. Oh, lord. Oh, no, wait a minute, and I'm a white guy and you're a black woman and I said that. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it.

Dr. RICHESON: You must avoid me for the rest of the day.

MARTIN: In that context of the study, as you look at this election, is this allowing us as Americans to have frank conversations about race, as you look at what's unfolding? The dialogue, in the wake of this democratic primary, is it giving us that chance? Are we talking more honestly? Or are we avoiding more than ever?

Dr. RICHESON: I think we're avoiding more than ever, but we can't, right? At least we're motivated to avoid more than ever, but it's impossible. So I think, you know, that's the great irony, is that, you know, we have - we do have this forced opportunity to think about, you know, both racism and sexism and how they affect electoral politics in this really important way.

But there's just so much at stake that it's so hard to, you know, to really have the conversation that we had the opportunity to have. Does that make sense? There's so much at stake, and people have such strong feelings about it that I think it's almost impossible to have the conversation now.

MARTIN: Jennifer Richeson is an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. She coauthored the study we've been talking about, "The Threat of Appearing Prejudiced and Race-Based Attentional Biases." Jennifer, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

Dr. RICHESON: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Take care.

PESCA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: That was a good one.

MARTIN: Yeah. I liked that conversation.

PESCA: Semi-obscure studies that we raise to prominence. But I was bored stiff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Like I said to you before we did that interview, the second hardest sentence in American culture is the one that comes right after, you know, we really need to have an honest conversation about race.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah. We do. Crickets, crickets.

MARTIN: Now what do we say?

PESCA: Crickets.

MARTIN: Well, hopefully we added a little value to that conversation with that interview.

PESCA: Not really, I mean...

MARTIN: Come on! Yes, we did.

PESCA: Nah, come on, us? What can we say? We're white.

MARTIN: You're right.

PESCA: What do we bring to the table? Come on.

MARTIN: You'll think of something. Come on. Stay with us. Next on the show, an in-studio performance with the Mates of State. You don't want to miss that one.

PESCA: They're live, well, not literally live, but live on tape.

MARTIN: They came into the studio. They played.

PESCA: Not literally taped. It's like this digital thing.

MARTIN: Can we go to commercial break now? This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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