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Racism against whites: So what’s the problem?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | March 9, 2011

This story about whites claiming to be the victims of racism was briefly the lead story on over the weekend. The article notes that whites are beginning to engage in forms of collective action (e.g., courses, rallies, consciousness raising) that follow in the historical footsteps of other minority groups in this country. That should tell us something about our commonalities — our common ways of being hurt by stereotypes, and our common ways of coping … but all we seem to get is anger directed at the Other.

It’s true that many people continue to be blind to the historical legacy of prejudice that affects minorities to this day, and makes the playing field not level. That’s why I write this blog, why I teach my course on prejudice and stigma. At the same time, precisely because the playing field is stacked in favor of majority group members, many others feel that claims about discrimination from whites are simply unfounded.

But this perspective fails to understand that stereotypes about whites — just like stereotypes about minorities — perpetuate the status hierarchies we all seek to overcome.

What stereotypes am I talking about? My guess is that the CNN article above makes people uncomfortable in part because it reminds them of white supremacist groups. This is the type of broad generalization that, one can imagine, does not predispose us to reading the article with an open mind. So what’s the problem?

credit: Jorchr (Wikipedia commons)

Some newly published research by Hilary Bergsieker, Nicole Shelton, and Jennifer Richeson in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology helps shed light on this issue. The researchers note that the stereotype of whites is that they are prejudiced, intolerant, and callous. When people are threatened that they are going to be seen this way, they step up their efforts to seem likeable. They nod their heads, they make self-deprecating comments, they note areas of agreement, they may smile a little too much. Of course, not everybody does this, but the point is that generally speaking, when whites interact across the racial divide, they are particularly likely to worry about the stereotype of being seen as bigots, so they compensate by trying to be super nice.

This seems like a good strategy. However, on the other side of that racial divide, someone else is dealing with their own painful stereotype: the stereotype of being seen as unintelligent and incompetent. African Americans and Latino/as are all too familiar with this stereotype, which lends credence to the idea that stigmatized minorities have to work twice as hard just to be seen or treated as equals. The implication of this stereotype, according to the researchers, is that one is not as likely to adopt a goal of being likable as much as a goal of inspiring respect. It makes sense — if you are worried about being pigeonholed as incompetent, you then focus on signaling your achievements, on being a little more serious, on holding a little bit of a straighter posture.

As it turns out, these divergent goals are especially toxic together during interracial interactions. Think about it: if you are working hard to be liked, and the other person is not cracking a smile and not reciprocating to your overtures, your goals are not being met. Similarly, if you are working hard to be respected, and the other person is instead being smiley and gooey with you, your goals are not being met. In other words, the motive to be liked leads to behaviors that are interpreted as disrespectful, and the motive to be respected leads to behaviors that are interpreted as unfriendly! Talk about having your signals cross — both members of the dyad are trying to achieve something to counteract a stereotype, and precisely because of that, neither participant ends up having a positive interaction.

In fact, the researchers found that the more an interracial dyad’s goals differed, the more negative feelings they had towards each other at the end of the interaction. The tragic part of this is that the participants in the study got so angry about not being understood, even though everybody was involved in the SAME struggle of trying to cope effectively with a negative stereotype about their group.  Nonetheless, rather than being able to relate, we grow ever more separate.

It’s important to see that even when stereotypes are directed against groups that have not been historically stigmatized, they still perpetuate the cycle of inequality. Why? Because these stereotypes prevent us from being able to sit down together at the same table, to hire each other, to elect each other to boards, to become friends.

And these types of small steps are key to addressing structural inequalities and leveling the playing field.

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Racism against whites: So what’s the problem?

  1. FBI statistics show BLACKS comitt a disproportionate amount of HATE CRIME..SO who is the bigger bigot, whitie or blackie ?

  2. I think everyone can practice discrimination and racism. no one can tell me that if someone makes bad comments etc. just because of someone skin color isn´t racism. so yes white ppl can be exposed to it too and it is never ok! still we have to be realistic and acknowledge that white ppl are much less exposed to it than ppl of color!

  3. I went to public school and a state university. My parents did not have alot of money and I went to a school with alot of cultural diversity. Since the late eighties I have seen more “white bashing”. I have since moved to Maryland and the anti white sentiment that is most notibly from government employees is deplorable. I think we are all equal. I think the days of affirmative action and special assistance for minorities should end. Separate rules are not equal! We either all play by the same rules or none of us should have to play by them.

  4. White people have to pay continually for the past and non-whites who have not been enslaved are constantly using that as a crutch to get sympathy from anyone who will listen. Now listen up ! Whites have been enslaved before and you don’t hear us whining about it. My family was just as poor as any non-white on the block and we never got a free ride. My mother had to work two jobs. I never got a free ride to college although I am glad now that I didn’t . Just another 4 years of liberal B.S.
    I have had blacks call me names before , oh but that’s not racism ? Give me a break !

  5. Whites are not the only people who can be racist. If you look at world history, every group of people have been prejudiced against other groups at some point in time.

  6. Wow! I was prompted to google blogs on racism because of a racist blog I found on Yahoo News which was written in Forbes online.

    It was very frustrating to read. As for your article, I can’t have sympathy for whites who feel that they are not liked. I’m personally tired of the spoken and unspoken supremacy that whites take on.

  7. Racism is a cancer that humanity will never find a cure for.South Africa is a case in point,where the inhuman and unjust system of racial segregation has been replaced by xenophobia and the marginalisation and discrimination of mixed race people by black Africans.

  8. “My guess is that the CNN article above makes people uncomfortable in part because it reminds them of white supremacist groups.” It makes me uncomfortable that CNN quoted actual white nationalists like Peter Brimelow of VDare without identifying them as such. Dave Neiwert explains at greater length in “CNN tries to tackle white anxiety — by treating white nationalists as credible sourcesC&L 03/05/2011, where he writes:

    “This is, of course, always a danger when it comes time to report on white supremacists of various stripes: In order for your readers to understand them, you have to present their views. But to do so without explaining to those same readers why these views are misbegotten and grounded in misconceptions, lies and pure bigotry is, in fact, profoundly irresponsible.”

  9. You failed to get the argument, at all!!! Whites grew up since the 1970s, from elementary school through college, if they went that far, being told they are the only racists in ‘ALL’ of history. These claims came from Minorities. They have been trying to debunk this minority lie for decades. Most minority civilizations either burn their writings to cover up reincarnation fall out ( See Herodotus!) or the are in fact illiterate — but when there are no historical records that does not mean that these minorities are no prejudice — that lie comes from the minorities. In all of history, white people flee from minority racism — it is a fact of history.

  10. Thank you for this incisive post! I must say it raised my awareness big time! Now on to remembering it in my interactions in the outside world…

  11. Your nomenclature is puzzling. Who are “whites?” Who are “Latinos?” Who are “African-Americans?” A Dominican who has Spanish/African heritage is what? Spaniards and Arabs are what? Brazilian a Latino? A Turk is Asian? Social scientists’ racial/ethnic research designations remind me of the fascistic racial designations of decades past.

  12. This sounds real nice and everything. And I can and do see where it makes some sense, but I’m more worried about the rich elite white folks who could care less about becoming chums and holding on to their status with little regard for anyone else except SELF…What about those ones? lol

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