Feb 17

“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.

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