Motivation to Work on Ending Racism

There’s new research that sheds some light on the motivation to end racismTracie L. Stewart, professor of psychology at Georgia State University, found that whites who both felt guilty about their racial advantage and believed that they could create change, were motivated to do work on ending racism.

Stewart was inspired to conduct the study based on her evaluation of a popular diversity training program. Her experience with the program was that it reduced many white participants’ bias in the short term, “…some white participants later reported that the exercise left them with feelings of guilt and self-directed anger about continuing racial inequality,” she says. “Others talked about how they left feeling helpless about changing institutionalized racism.” And people who feel helpless don’t feel motivated to bring about change. So she and her colleagues, Ioana M. Latu and H. Ted Denney of Georgia State and Nyla R. Branscombe of the University of Kansas, wanted to see if they could change how people act by making them believe their efforts would be successful.

(via James Callan Flickr CreativeCommons)

For the experiment, they recruited 82 white university student participants. In a fictional cover story, each participant was told about a pattern of racial inequality at their university, particularly in regard to African American students having fewer African American faculty role models. They were then asked to write a letter to the university administration, expressing the need to hire more African American professors. But first, the experimenter said something about whether the effort was likely to work, ending with, “I’d guess that there’s probably a 95 percent chance that our efforts will affect the administration’s hiring practices.” Other participants were told there was a 50 percent chance of success, and some were told 5 percent.

After hearing that introduction, the participant wrote the letter, filled out some questionnaires, and, finally, was given a chance to take some anti-discrimination flyers out of a folder. The experimenter left the room — so that the volunteer wouldn’t feel obligated to take more flyers than they wanted to — then later counted the remaining flyers to see how many the volunteer had taken.  People who believed there was a high chance of success took more flyers, evidence that they were willing to take more action to fight racism. These people also had more positive attitudes toward African Americans.

The most interesting finding to me is that the researchers also found that white participants’ guilt about how their own racial privilege from inequality wasn’t bad; rather, it inspired them to take action. However, participants only felt guilty if they believed that they could be efficacious in fighting institutional racism.

Participants who felt low efficacy to make a difference rejected feelings of guilt and, consequently, exhibited less positive racial attitudes and less engagement in anti-discrimination action. The next step, Stewart says, is to incorporate this sense of efficacy into diversity training programs, to get people out there and acting.

Of course, there are limitations to this study.  It’s a small sample, just 82 university students. (Some people have suggested that college students are the most over-studied group anywhere.)  The missing piece here, of course, is talking about the wider lens of the pervasiveness of structural, systemic racism, but then that may not be a fair critique for a small psychology experiment.  Still, this research offers some intriguing findings that suggest we need to continue to focus attention on changing systems of racial inequality.


  1. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    May I be honest?

    Don’t get me wrong. I understand that to address racial inequality, we really have to engage white US-Americans. We have to demonstrate the reality of racism as well as their participation in it. Etc, etc, etc. I get all that.

    Also, I understand feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. I really do.

    That said, am I wrong to be frustrated with the constant attention to the feelings of whites? “Ooohhh, poor baby. You feel guilty and helpless. Awwoo. Come let mommy kiss it and make it better.”

    Even if you feel helpless to change the situation and thereby reject feelings of guilt, shouldn’t the attitudes towards African Americans remain the same? I mean, I can’t feed all the hungry children, and so sometimes I get tired of seeing all those “feed the children” commercials and wonder how old dude’s wearing such nice shoes if he’s all concerned about the children. But nonetheless, my sense of compassion towards the children doesn’t change. I would feed all the children if I could. Doesn’t it stand to reason that white attitudes towards minorities should follow the same pattern. That even if someone feels helpless to change the situation, s/he nonetheless maintains a positive attitude toward African Americans and waits/hopes for a chance to do something?

    And apart from flyers and letters, one thing any white person could do would be to examine and change their own attitudes and ideas about racial minorities. Challenge your friends who send you racist emails and make racist comments to check themselves, too. Then abracadabra, presto change-o! You haven’t change the world, but you’ve changed your world, and that’s nothing to feel helpless or guilty about. Right?

    That said, I’m still disturbed that more people who’d otherwise take flyers and write letters can’t figure that out on their own: if you can’t do anything else, you can change yourself. Eh, duh!

  2. Kristen

    Blaque Swan, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here – good to “see” you!

    Jessie, first off, thanks for posting this study. I agree with Blaque Swan that we spend an awful lot of attention on whites’ feelings/barriers and how to manipulate them in order to get them closer to being allies. Nevertheless I am very happy to see the results of this study, for they indicate that those of us who teach about racism – and who are seeking a pedagogy that will connect most effectively for people – need not try to avoid making whites feel guilty. I know I have struggled with that some in my own teaching and presentations. On the surface, guilt appears to be an emotion that encourages stagnation and retrenchment, not progress. Teachers, trainers, and ordinary interveners sometimes make valiant efforts to guide whites and other resistant people through the process/information as gently as possible, which of course leads to another set of problems related to soft-pedaling the issues and failing to honor people of color’s perspectives. This study is good because it suggests that it is not necessary or even useful to expend energy trying to make whites more comfortable with the reality that they have racial privileges. Rather, we can focus on the reality of the situation in clear terms and then model change making.

    Although now I’m thinking something else, that this approach is just catering to another problem of whiteness – that whites need to know that they can “fix” things or else they won’t engage in the work. This is all about the skewed, privileged white experience that hasn’t felt hundreds of years of oppression. People of color have had to know the work is inherently valuable even though the chances of “fixing” the problem are never 95%, and not even as high as that pessimistic 5% from the study.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to this often counterproductive preoccupation we have with converting our white friends to the cause, when we don’t need more people, we need more action. Antiracist activists need to be okay with our miniscule numbers, and I guess I’m just not convinced that antiracist college classes or workshops are a significant part of the solution (and I openly admit that this has been the form of most of my own antiracist “work” thus far).


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