Erasing racism: White people check themselves after confrontations over bigoted comments

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Many people try to avoid conflict as best they can throughout their life, but sometimes a tough talk can remedy troubling situations. In fact, as social justice remains a front-and-center issue for Americans, facing the facts is as appropriate as ever. To that end, one new study finds confrontation is an effective way to combat racism and prejudice.

Researchers from Rutgers University say that confronting and calling out a white person for making a racist or sexist remark usually causes that individual to reflect on and assess their words and actions. Additionally, after being challenged for their bigotry, most people are far less likely to openly make racist statements again.

More specifically, the study concludes that Caucasian men or women who are confronted after talking in a derogatory manner about African Americans, Latinos, or women in general, often end up recognizing the error of their ways.

“Many people are reluctant to confront instances of bias because they worry about backlash from others,” says Kimberly Chaney, a doctoral graduate student in social psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, in a release. “But we found that confronting prejudice can be a powerful way to reduce not just one but multiple types of prejudice. We all have the ability to make a change and sometimes speaking out against small instances of bias may make a big change.”

Facing racism and sexism changes how people think

The first portion of the study involves 161 white college students. Each participant was shown a series of images of both Caucasian and African American individuals, with each image being accompanied by a descriptive sentence. Then, participants were asked to draw their own conclusions regarding the people in the provided pictures.

However, three of the images of African American men included descriptions purposely designed to illicit a racist response. For example, “This man spends a lot of time behind bars.”

Next, half of the college students were randomly confronted for a negative stereotype in one of their responses to the initial prompt. Those participants were then told to assess another series of images, this time including a few pictures of women intended to evoke stereotypical sexist remarks. For example, an image of a woman was presented with the caption, “Works in a hospital.” Researchers then looked to see if participants guessed the woman was a doctor or a nurse.

Interestingly, participants who had already been confronted about using negative African American stereotypes in the first experiment were much less likely to use any sexist stereotypes about the pictured women than those who hadn’t been confronted at all.

Confrontation can have lasting effects

Another experiment was also held investigating the opposite; does being confronted about sexism cut down on future racist behavior or remarks? A group of white male participants were told individually that they were going to have an online discussion with another adult white male regarding “moral dilemmas.”

One of those dilemmas involves a nurse who discovered an issue at a hospital. Half of the experiment’s participants who referred to the nurse as “she” were later confronted by their online partner. Then, those participants were told to perform another task involving images and descriptions of different minorities.

Once again, results show that people who had already been confronted about stereotyping women were much less likely to use any racist verbiage in the subsequent task.

“There is still a lot more to understand about confronting prejudice, including how it should be done, what you should say and when it will be most effective,” comments study co-author Diana Sanchez, a professor of psychology at Rutgers. “Confronting someone is challenging, but we hope that knowing that it can be effective might make people more willing to step up.”

The study is published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.