“I’m not racist, but…”

We have all heard someone utter these words, followed by an obviously racist statement.  It may seem clear to those around them that they are behaving in a racist manner, but that individual may truly be unaware of his or her biases.  The following is an extreme example of such racism:

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it was not unheard of for the Ku Klux Klan (often referred to as the KKK) to hold rallies while clothed in white hooded robes, where they publicly condemned and intimidated minorities (History.com, 2009).  During a time when public spaces were still segregated and African Americans did not have equal voting rights, the presence of the KKK was not as widely condemned by society as it is today.  Though their numbers have dwindled in recent decades, the KKK is still operating in the United States.  In fact, they are actively recruiting members.

This week, the Press Enterprise newspaper printed an article about the Ku Klux Klan distributing flyers in the quiet town of Berwick Pennsylvania with the intention of recruiting new members (Wemple, 2017).  The newspaper reprinted the flyers in full in their newspaper (widely regarded as severely poor judgment), which encouraged white people to be proud of their race.  A direct quote from the Ku Klux Klan’s flyer reads, “I’m proud to be white!  There is no need to feel guilty about the past!  If that offends you your racist!”  The flyer also included a section about White History Month, to protest the perceived inequity of having a national celebration of Black History Month but no officially recognized equivalent for white people.  The Ku Klux Klan claims that their words are not racist, yet they are so offended by African Americans showing pride for their heritage that they feel the need to invent a similar holiday of their own.  They are upset by the inequality when, for many years, they have advocated for the exact opposite.  While they are not blatantly intimidating minorities by burning crosses on their lawns or encouraging violence against them, this behavior fits the description of a subtler form of racism: aversive racism.

Aversive racism can be defined as exhibiting racist tendencies while denying that those thoughts, behaviors, and motives are racist (Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts, 2012).  People who are aversive racists believe that they support egalitarian principles, or equal rights for all, though this is at odds with their clear racial biases.  Their racism is subconscious.  While it is arguable that the KKK organization is actually unaware of their own racist tendencies, their recruitment flyers seem to suggest that they do not view themselves as racists.  How is it possible that these individuals hold racist beliefs while maintaining that they are not racists, and how may applied social psychology help to remedy this?

Hing, Li, and Zanna (2002) found that exposing individuals to their own hypocrisy was an effective way of reducing prejudice.  Participants completed a questionnaire to assess their levels of racist attitudes towards Asians.  Students whose questionnaires revealed high levels of racist attitudes toward Asians advanced to the next phase where they spent at least five minutes interacting with an Asian experimenter with whom they completed a word association task.  Interaction with the Asian experimenter was intended to prime participants to potentially reveal positive or negative attitudes about Asians based on the words that they chose.  Afterward, participants in the hypocrisy-inducing condition were asked to write an essay advocating fair treatment of Asian students that would potentially be featured in a school pamphlet.  This exercise was intended to induce negative feelings of guilt in participants who exhibited racist attitudes.  A follow-up questionnaire assessed how they were feeling after writing the essays.  Finally, participants were asked to fill out anonymous ballots about whether budget cuts should be made to the Asian Students’ Association.  A scenario was presented to make it seem as though there were legitimate reasons to cut the budget, and the exercise was intended to measure subtle discrimination against Asians.  The results showed that participants who showed strong racist tendencies and were exposed to hypocrisy-inducing conditions showed a reduction in prejudice toward Asians.  In fact, they seemed to attempt to make up for their prejudicial behaviors by refusing to cut the budget to the Asian Students’ Association and some even proposed awarding additional funds.

This study by Hing and colleagues suggests that making aversive racists aware of the fact that their words and actions are at odds with their egalitarian beliefs may create dissonance.  This dissonance may make an aversive racist uncomfortable enough to change their ways in order to resolve these negative feelings.

The next time you hear the words, “I’m not racist, but…” followed by a racist statement, it may be helpful to gently make the individual aware of the racist implications of his or her comments.  While they may not respond well to sound reasoning, their own discomfort may be enough to cause them to change their ways.

History.com Staff. (2009). Ku Klux Klan. Retrieved February 24, 2017, from http://www.history.com/topics/ku-klux-klan
Wemple, J. (2017, February 21). Woman decries KKK leaflets. Press Enterprise. Retrieved February 24, 2017, from http://www.pressenterpriseonline.com/daily/022117/page/1/story/woman-decries-kkk-leaflets
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.

Hing, L. S. S., Li, W., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Inducing hypocrisy to reduce prejudicial responses among aversive racists. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(1), 71-78.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. Christopher and Kristen,

    I wish I had the answers. A few times, I have tried to point out similarities between those people and the people that they are speaking about. For instance, after Philando Castile was shot by a police officer, a few friends of mine tried to say that he was to blame because he had a gun. My friends love their guns, so I tried to reason with them by pointing out that he was legally entitled to carry a gun. It didn’t help as much as I had hoped, but I think that it helped them to identify with the victim more. In another instance, a friend was talking about Muslims being violent because of their religious beliefs and referenced information from the Quran (I know this isn’t racism, but it is prejudice so it’s relevant). The friend is a Christian so I reminded them of the violence that is seen throughout the Bible and asked if they are violent because of what they’ve read in their Bible. Again, it did not help as much as I had hoped, but I still may have gotten through. I think that is part of what makes the contact hypothesis an effective way to combat prejudice- you are able to interact and find some common ground with someone who is not like yourself. Placing people in situations where they have to interact with someone who they are prejudiced against isn’t always realistic or practical though. Realizing that we are all just human beings with different beliefs is important, and I think finding a way to identify with diverse groups is an effective way of squashing many unfair stereotypes.

  2. Christopher Ryan Ivery


    I quite enjoyed reading this blog. Unfortunately, racism still runs pretty deep in our society. I am from South-Western Pennsylvania and I have seen a few news stories similar to the KKK flyer story that you mentioned. In fact, some people that I know had the flyers put on their cars.

    I do agree with your assessment that the type of racism that the KKK engages in is aversive racism. I have known people that have incredibly racist views such as saying that white people are superior to all other races, say that they themselves aren’t actually racist. They believe that they are simply being factual about the evolution of each race. I believe that people cannot actually see their own racism; they’ll justify it any way that they can.

    I like that you added in the subject of exposing people to their own hypocrisy. Not only did you discuss how racism often looks in our world today but you gave an example of how it can be combated. Taking the time to explain why somebody’s statements or viewpoints may be racists could be helpful. However, it hasn’t worked for me every time. Some of my coworkers constantly add in the race of a person when telling a story. The thing is, it’s usually only when the person is black. In the stories that I have heard so far, race hasn’t mattered to the story. My other coworkers and I have told them why it isn’t important. It hasn’t seemed to help yet.

    With that said, do you have any advice on how to get the message across? I have tried to reason with them but they do not seem to understand.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. Wow!

    Your article title definitely caught my attention. I, like many others I imagine, have such a sensitivity to racism in the United States especially. I grew up surrounded by people who did not have inherently racist views nor did they come across as subconsciously racist by any means. For the most part in my upbringing, racism was a thin concept. However, as I got older and was faced with different types of people and different belief systems, I saw how discrimination could be rampant whether it be based on race, gender, or belief system.
    I agree with you that drawing awareness can be an effective way to make people aware of their racist orientations and tendencies. After all, I have compassion for people who grew up thinking these beliefs were “normal” and who really don’t mean to objectify or hurt anyone. Sometimes the awareness of a person’s behavior is enough to ignite change in that person.
    While I think it is valuable to point it out in other people, how do you think people could be encouraged to point it out in themselves? I am constantly trying to make myself aware of the language I am using or the way I am treating people but sometimes you don’t know what you just don’t know. Do you think there is a way to spark the flame of curiosity in people to examine their own tendencies to ignore people who are different than them or to treat another person differently based on inherited qualities? For example, a person could be living out of a belief in a stereotype that they consider fact. Do you think there could be a way to promote a belief system that would strip away the judgments people utilize in functioning in their day to day lives or do you think our society will always form stereotypes based on differences in other people?
    Really moving piece, thank you for sharing!
    -Kristen Jezek

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar