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Jeremy Lin and racism? How subtle discrimination affects targets

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | February 24, 2012

In last week’s post, I compared Jeremy Lin to Jackie Robinson, making the point that Lin might open doors for other Asian American athletes in pro sports. One reader, Angela, astutely pointed out that the analogy is problematic:

“There was an actual structure preventing such players from participating, a structure that doesn’t exist for Asians or Asian-Americans today… Lin [is] not breaking a barrier.”

Angela’s point is excellent: the Lin and Robinson cases are not comparable in the sense that Robinson and other African Americans faced blatant, institutional barriers that were specifically set up to maintain Black and White players separate, whereas Lin faced no such barriers in his journey to the Knicks. One of the potential implications of this difference is that Lin’s journey might not be as significant because he didn’t face the explicit hardships that Robinson had to endure.

Let me frame my commentary in terms of the scandal surrounding the controversial headline “Chink in the Armor” that made its way to the headlines of ESPN and Madison Square Garden.

Although Robinson and Lin were both targets of racist language, the epithets directed at Robinson were direct and unambiguous, whereas in Lin’s case, the intent of the writers and broadcasters is much less clear. One can credibly ask whether the writers and sportcasters actually meant to be insulting, or whether the headline creeped through as a result of unconscious bias, lousy editing, or both.

This point goes to one of the fundamental differences between race-based discrimination in the Robinson versus the Lin eras: the prejudice Robinson experienced was blatant, whereas with Lin, the discrimination is much more subtle. Although it may seem that blatant discrimination is much more devastating, consider that even without explicit barriers, the representation of Asian American athletes in professional sports remains, to this day, exceptionally low. It is part of what accounts for the intrigue around Lin.

Subtle discrimination can be just as devastating in part because of the guessing game that targets naturally engage in when faced with subtle, ambiguous discrimination. Did that otherwise sensible person really just say what I think they said? Am I being oversensitive? Did I get cut from the team because of my skills, or because of my appearance? Did I fail this exam because of something about me, or because of my evaluator’s attitudes?

This guessing game, this internal dialogue in the face of ambiguous discrimination, is called attributional ambiguity, and it can have a profound negative effect on performance by not letting you concentrate on the task at hand. An experiment out of UC Berkeley (Mendoza-Denton, Shaw Taylor, Chen, and Chang, 2009) in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrates this well. In this study, women signed up for a study that was, purportedly, about their competence for graduate study. The study involved an interview and a test. Each of the women was invited to sit down in the office of a male evaluator; unbeknownst to them, we manipulated the decor of the room to suggest the kind of person this evaluator was. One third of the women walked into a room that strongly suggested their evaluator was chauvinist. The decor included, for example, pictures of girls in bikinis posing next to motorcyles. One third of the women walked into a room that strongly suggested their evaluator was progressive; his office had decorations like pink ribbons in support of breast cancer awareness and a picture of a little girl who might have been his daughter. Finally, one third of the women walked into an office that was ambiguous with respect to his attitudes: it was decorated with a university banner and a bottle of Snapple. By design, no interviewer ever arrived, but all the women were asked to complete a written test of verbal ability anyway.

The results were fascinating, particularly for women who had reported, prior to the study, that they were chronically concerned about being the target of sexism. The test scores of these women suffered in only one of the three rooms–  but which one?

Many people would expect, naturally, the women’s scores to be disrupted the most in the office of the chauvinist interviewer. Yet the results showed a different pattern. Women did equally well when they took the test in the egalitarian and the chauvinist office– it was in the ambiguous office that their performance suffered. Ironically, it seems the women who were placed in the chauvinist office, by knowing who they were up against, were able to steel themselves against the impending negativity, and to prepare themselves psychologically. This was not possible in the ambiguous room, where the concern about whether the evaluator would be sexist led to performace decrements. It’s worth pointing out that one doesn’t need to be chronically worried about prejudice to suffer the consequences of attributional ambiguity– all that is needed is an ambiguous event such as receiving less pay than one’s male counterpart, or perhaps a headline such as “Chink in the Armor”– to activate the mind games.

One of the realities of the modern era is that many of the stereotypes that people expressed freely in the past– of minorities, of women, of any number of groups– are no longer outwardly expressed. This does not mean they are less real, less important, or less damaging when they do seep out. And part of the damage comes from the very fact that prejudice today can be so much harder to pinpoint with certainty.

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Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today


Comments to “Jeremy Lin and racism? How subtle discrimination affects targets

  1. Thank you SO much for articulating it so well. I too have felt this for so long, and it’s incredibly comforting to know I am not the only one.

  2. I have comment about racism to asian. Just personal opinion. So i hope not upset to anyone. Long time ago asian moved to USA to be slavery also. Because they thought they will have good life to move to america. But at the end they were digging railway and digging Gold mines. They got trick. But asian work hard to change the life from generation to generation. You hardly hear asian complain about racism as much as African american. Like we go to school we are minority but we don’t have any affirmative action to back us up as for African american. However we are slavery too. We are minority also but we don’t have a lot of help from financial aid. They consider us a non minority. WHY? Because we never complain to anyone. We never complaint about fairness. We just work hard, study hard and save money to make for our next generation. But yes racism is there. Sometimes i feel even more than racism to African american. Because they just scream louder so people hear them. And we don’t do that.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. It home for me because I definitely have dealt with the subtle racism which can be quite insidious. I’ve had conversations in the past actually about geographical differences in regards to this issue. I lived for several years in the south where it was more blatant which worked well for me because I knew what I was up against at all times. When I lived in other regions of the country (midwest/east coast) I dealt with subtle discrimination which is like a “snake in the grass” type of situation. This type of discrimination caused me to be paranoid and extra sensitive in various situations. Again, great article!

  4. Sterotypes and racism will never go away…as a society, we consistently find differences in each other to either uplift ourselves, degrade someone else or make fun; not realizing that there will always be more similarities than differences. The bottom line is that Lin can play basketball. If people paid more attention to his abilities and set him up on the same pedastool as the other players, he would have been playing a long time ago.

    Lets talk about his skills, lets talk about his ability and performance, lets talk about the game of basketball.

    It doesn’t matter what race you are…if you can play, play!!!

  5. It is important to remember that this article is written by someone who gets paid to find racism in every corner.

    • It’s important to remember Bill is being subtle in suggesting that the research and this article are invalid. Ironically, by doing that, Bill is exhibiting the very ambiguous behavior mentioned in the article.

  6. If you think this is bad, wait for the racist comments that will come if Jeremy Lin starts dating an attractive white woman…it is possible all hell will break loose.

  7. Recent videos in youtube from the UK and the US that have gone viral indicate that there is a more vicious racist group…white American and British females. I have lived in Hawaii. Some whites in Hawaii probably are still racists, but Hawaii has the highest rate of intermarriage in the country between whites and Asian Americans, particularly between white women and Asian men. The people who make these racists comments are generally from the mainland, particularly the US South. A young white woman tourist from Alabama could not take her eyes of inter-racial couples and her mouth could not resist passing racist comments.

    • George — don’t generalize blame from one person’s behavior to all American and British females.
      The blame should be put on Alabamans specifically. (:P

  8. Professor Mendoza-Denton,
    Who is at fault in a situation like the “chink in the armor” comment? The writer is using a cliche that fits with the story where the team loses because of too many turnovers, and the writer may not have thought anything about Lin’s ethnicity. So is a writer who wasn’t being racist to blame because others think he is racist? Going back to the experiment you shared, it seems like we would say the unambiguous office would then mean the interviewer was sexist, because the women waiting to be interviewed let their imaginations paint him as sexist, even though he never did anything sexist. Does this mean that we need to actually be racist, and actively not use “chink in the armor” when an Asian is involved so we don’t appear racist? It seems like we are losing instead of winning.

  9. Paramount facts of life for the human race today are:

    1) Racism still dominates social interactions throughout the world, because

    2) The failure to follow the Golden Rule by the leaders of the world’s political, religious and intellectual institutions has made the hopes and goals of the founders of the United Nations an impossible dream.

    Either university scholars make the right things happen quickly, or this most certainly shall be the last century for the vast majority of the human race to truly enjoy life on earth.

    Thus it would be most helpful if you Prof. Mendoza-Denton and your colleagues know something about the evolution of the human brain that enable us end destructive racism because the current model is still at the chimpanzee stage of development when it comes to using our prefrontal cortex to save ourselves.

  10. That’s right! I remember when there was a huge uproar about letting Lin into the NBA since he was Asian. Oh wait, there wasn’t…But definitely the media frenzy attacking him for being Asian when he starting winning! Oh yeah, there wasn’t one of those either…

    Also, why is there a picture of Robert the Bruce of Scotland in the bottom right? I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely interpreting the reference to the “chink in the armor” phrase coupled with Bruce’s depiction as subtle racist discrimination against the pro-independence movement in Scotland. Think about your words before you write them Prof. Mendoza-Denton, there are mothers starving in the Highlands due to unionist greed. Don’t be a Brit-Nat Hun. Saor Alba gu brath!

  11. I have thoroulgy enjoyed reviewing your research. Can you please share with me any subltle clues to look for in an job interviwers office that have racist overtones toward African Americans?

  12. Interesting article Rudy. It seems very much like partial reinforment when it comes to being unsure on how you stand with other people in general. When it comes to those who like you or dislike you, you are more sure of what to do but when it comes to those who give you mixed messages,you can tend be more unsure and less confident.

  13. Would you expect worse performance through attributional ambiguity in an interview in a workplace that has been cleared of all markers through anti-discrimination laws?

    For example, in Northern Ireland work places have to produce neutral environments that cannot offend catholics or protestants, nationalists or unionists. So paramilitary flags, slogans and photographs have to be removed, and over unionist icons such as the Union Jack and pictures of the Queen need to be balanced by nationalist ones such as the Tricolour and pictures of the Pope. (This is somewhat oversimplified to fit into a comment.)

    The employment codes severely restrict overt discrimination, but candidates are often worried about subtle discrimination. They will get no clues from the office decor, or the questions asked at the interview. If this research applies in that situation, then I would expect people to only apply for jobs in organisations where they know that they would be wanted.

  14. I completely agree with the impact of subtle racism. I am asian american, grew up in Hawaii where Asians are actually the majority, and STILL experienced racism, albeit subtle, by comments from caucasian kids WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER growing up here, but who felt they could get away with it by insisting anything they said, when confronted was a joke. “Haha, I’m only kiddding; why are you so sensitive?” That is a copout answer for any prejudice that is confronted. The comments still stung, even though I made pretend it didn’t bother me. I don’t doubt we’ve all experienced the subtle racist.

  15. Professor Mendoza-Denton,

    You are SO right. You have acutely described what I felt for years, but don’t know how to verbalize. Do you have any suggestions as to how to combat the subtle discrimination? In another word, how does one perform to his/her normal level when facing the ambiguous discrimination? Thanks.

  16. Fantastic article. “Chink in the armor – to activate the mind games” – you are so correct! Bigots love the ambiguity. Thanks for sharing your study and results. Fascinating.

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