New Research: Confronting Racism Boosts Self-Esteem

A new study of Filipino Americans by researchers at San Francisco State University demonstrates that confronting racism helps boost self-esteem for some.
The study was conducted by Alvin Alvarez, professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and Linda Juang, associate professor of psychology.  They are co-authors on a new article, “Filipino Americans and Racism: A Multiple Mediation Model of Coping,” which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology.  Alvarez surveyed 199 Filipino American adults, both men and women, in the San Francisco Bay Area and found that 99 percent of participants had experienced at least one incident of everyday racism in the last year.   The study focused on “everyday racism” — subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently.  In an interview, lead researcher Alvarez explained:

“These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health. Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person’s spirit.”

For men in the study, dealing with racism in an active way, such as reporting incidents to authorities or challenging the perpetrator, was associated with decreased distress and increased self esteem.  The authors caution that what makes a healthy coping mechanism is influenced by such factors as gender, socioeconomic status, age, English language capacity and length of residency in the United States.  There seems to be a different dynamic at work for women in the study who did not report the positive self-esteem boost associated with “active coping,” in the same way that men did.  For women, the “avoidance” coping strategy increased psychological distress and decrease self-esteem.

“What’s striking is we found that racism is still happening to Filipinos. Therapists need to look beyond the frequent portrayal of Asian Americans as model minorities and help clients assess what their best coping strategy could be, depending on their resources, what’s feasible and who they could turn to for support.”

Of course, this new research lends further support to the argument that Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin have done in their book, The Myth of the Model Minority, in which they document the widespread experience of everyday racism among Asian Americans.

Role Models and Mentors for Black STEM Students: College Racial Climates

Inside Higher Education has a summary piece by Scott Jaschik on a national data analysis by Cornell Ph.D. student, Joshua Price:

A constant theme of reports about math and science is that the United States will have a large enough supply of scientists only if it does a better job of attracting black and Latino scientists …. Many of these reports note that large shares of black and Latino high school students don’t receive the kind of preparation they should in math and science.

This lack of preparation and/or related role model and mentoring factors likely extends to the college level, as Price’s research clearly suggests:

The study finds a statistically significant relationship between black students who plan to be a science major having at least one black science instructor as freshmen and then sticking to their plans. The finding could be significant because many students (in particular members of under-represented minority groups) who start off as science majors fail to continue on that path — so a change in retention of science majors could have a major impact.

Jaschik continues:

Price analyzed data on more than 157,000 students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in one of the 13 four-year universities in Ohio between 1998 and 2002 and who said that they intended to major in science, technology or mathematics. He then examined whether those black students who had a black instructor … were more likely to stick with their planned STEM major than those who did not. For purposes of the study, “instructor” had to be the person — typically but not always a professor — who was responsible for a course.

Price found no gender effects, but he did find another significant effect, after controlling for various factors:

… black students who had at least one black science instructor as freshmen were statistically more likely to continue on as STEM majors than those who did not. … black STEM students were more likely than white students to end up in STEM courses or sections led by black instructors, again suggesting a key role for these black science professors. … In an interview, Price … [said] that the impact of having a black instructor could come from a “role model effect” or from a mentoring effect.

Neither the article nor the study mentions the numerous other factors that enter into this institutional-racism reality in our historically white colleges and universities. There is the problem of the hostile racial climate that scattered evidence suggests is strong in departments where there have historically been few students of color. This doubtless greatly affects the persistence of many. (To my knowledge, there is no systematic research on variation in this climate by department in historically white institutions–another area for research if you looking for an important project.) Still, our field research on several historically white universities shows that it is a common problem generally for black students, undergraduate and graduate.

Researchers have also shown that this hostile racial climate also affects, often greatly shapes, the reality of too few faculty of color in most departments, not just so-called STEM departments. Since faculty of color often find these historically white campuses difficult places to teach, indeed to be at, it is not surprising that students of color frequently find few faculty of color there. Research indicates, again and again, that the U.S. higher educational system is still fundamentally and deeply racist in its structures and everyday operations. No post-racial America there.

Briefly Noted: Online Database about Prejudice

This notice was posted in the January newsletter Footnotes, a publication of the ASA.   I thought this might be of interest to some readers here who didn’t see it there:

Prejudice and Conflict Reduction Online Database. The database is bibliography of approximately 1,000 empirical reports of interventions to reduce prejudice and/or intergroup conflict. The database consists of laboratory and field-based studies, examining interventions from priming to affirmative action policy. Visitors can do a keyword search to find specific types of interventions or outcome measures. Using the advanced search option, users can also search by study methodology. Users can export the studies they select into a bibliographic list in APA format, post comments on references, and sign up for an RSS feed to receive updates of new references added to the database. The database includes unpublished dissertations and policy reports. Users are encouraged to email new dissertations, unpublished reports, and any studies we may have missed. The database is meant to be a pragmatic resource for scholars and practitioners interested in evidence-based theory and intervention. The database is available at under the heading “Online Database.” Contact: Betsy Levy Paluck at

Racial Bias Affects Perceptions of Victims’ Need

Researchers at Kansas State University have found that racial bias affects people’s perceptions of those in need. Researchers Donald Saucier, associate professor of psychology, and psychology graduate students Sara Smith, Topeka, and Jessica McManus, Maineville, Ohio, surveyed undergraduate students a year after Hurricane Katrina to examine their perceptions of the hurricane victims and the helping response. Here’s a brief recap of the study from Science Daily:

The researchers created a questionnaire that evaluated the participants’ perceptions of Hurricane Katrina victims. The questionnaire evaluated whom the participants perceived to be the victims based on measures like gender, race and socioeconomic status. The results showed that participants generally thought people impacted by Hurricane Katrina were black and lower class.

“What we wanted to do was see how perceptions of victims of Hurricane Katrina would interact with things like racism,” Saucier said. “We wanted to look at how much the participants felt that the victims may have been to blame for their own situation in Katrina.”

The researchers measured differences in the participants, including their levels of conservatism, empathy and racism. The findings showed that when recalling victims of Hurricane Katrina, participants who were less racist thought the victims did not receive adequate help from the government. Participants who were more racist thought the victims received adequate government assistance and were at fault for their situation. The survey also asked questions that measured whether the participants thought the victims had enough time to evacuate and whether they had enough resources to get out before the hurricane hit.

“We asked the participants to make personality attributions about individuals, such as whether they thought the victims were lazy, stupid, sinful or unlucky,” Saucier said. “If they said they were lazy, stupid or sinful, they were putting more blame on the victims for the situation. If they said they were unlucky, they took away the blame.”

The results of the study showed that when recalling victims of Hurricane Katrina, participants who were less racist thought the victims did not receive adequate help from the government. Participants who were more racist thought the victims received adequate government assistance and were at fault for their situation.

Their findings are not surprising but disturbing nonetheless given the continued harrowing news out of Haiti. Recent news from Democracy Now confirms what I anticipated last week, namely that racism is hindering relief efforts in Port-au-Prince.

New Research Suggests Obama Supporters See Whiteness

New research suggests that people’s political views influence how they see biracial candidates (h/t Louise Seamster).   When it comes to President Obama (who is biracial), supporters tend to view him as ‘whiter’ than those who are not supporters.  The research, published in a recent issue of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Eugene M. Caruso, Nicole L. Mead, and Emily Balcetis.  The researchers used a series of experiments to demonstrate that political partisanship influences people’s visual representations of a biracial political candidate’s skin tone.

In the first experiment, participants rated photographs of a hypothetical biracial candidate.   In the second and third experiment, participants rated photographs Barack Obama. What the participants didn’t know was that researchers had altered the photographs to make the candidate’s skin tone either lighter or darker than it was in the original photograph.  This is, as Omar mentioned, a very cool study.

People in the study who shared the same political views as the candidate, consistently rated the lightened photographs as more representative of the candidate than the darkened photographs.  On the other hand, participants whose political views were at odds with the candidate, consistently rated the darkened photographs as more representative.  In other words, if they agreed with the candidate, they tended to see them as lighter-skinned, or”whiter”,  but if they disagreed, then the candidate was “darker.”

In the experiments where people were asked to rate photographs of Barack Obama, there was a positive correlation between having voted for Obama in the 2008 Presidential election and rating the lightened photos of him as more representative.   Obama supporters, in other words, see him as whiter than those who are not supporters.

These findings are interesting on a number of levels, but most of all the results suggest that our deeply held perceptions of race influence how we interpret visual information.  Often times, people talk about race as if it were self-evident, obvious way to categorize people.  In fact, race is malleable.   Who we see as “white” or not white is shaped by many things, including political views.    This is also another example of the kind of colorism that Adia and Ed have discussed here recently.   The misbegotten notion that “if you’re white, you’re alright,” is one that profoundly shapes how we see the world.

For more, there’s an interview with one of the researchers here.

Taking Anti-Racist Action: Why Rare for Whites?

The Associated Press just reported on a research project in Toronto that shows how 120 college-educated whites reacted to a racist act. They were recruited for a “psychology study,” and faced this experimental set-up whose purpose they were unaware of:

A participant was directed to a room where two actors posing as fellow participants — one black, one white — waited. The black person said he needed to retrieve a cell phone and left, gently bumping the white person’s leg on the way out. The white actor then did one of three things: Nothing. Said, “I hate when black people do that.” Or used the N-word.

The researcher then came in to start the “study” and asked each participant to pick the white or black person as a partner for the study.

Students who actually experienced the event didn’t seem bothered by it — and nearly two-thirds chose the white actor as a partner, the researchers reported Friday in the journal Science. “It’s like these nasty racist comments aren’t having an effect,” said York University psychology professor Kerry Kawakami, the lead author. . . . The study can’t say why people reacted that way, although the researchers speculate that unconscious bias is at work.

CNN’s report on the same study added this:

The magnitude of the results surprised even the authors, Kawakami said. Experiencers reported little distress in all three scenarios . . . . “Even using that most extreme comment didn’t lead people to be particularly upset,” said co-author Elizabeth Dunn, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Even white researchers working on racism issues like this seem to be unaware or unreflective about how fundamental and widespread the white racial framing of North America really is. A great many whites react this way because they in fact do think in blatantly racist terms about black people (but may reserve openly racist comments for white backstage areas) or because they do not find the racist actions of others to be “serious,” especially serious enough for them to intervene in and risk losing a friend or acquaintance.
Leslie Picca and I found this reaction to be commonplace. Nowhere in our 9,000 diary accounts of racial events from 626 white college students at 28 colleges and universities is there even one account of whites, including the student diarists, assertively protesting a case of racial discrimination by white actors and authorities in a frontstage setting.

Only occasionally in the journal accounts do we even see whites, the students and other whites, engaging in sustained or assertive verbal dissent to the racist performances of friends, acquaintances, and relatives in the backstage settings. Just a few student journal accounts show one or more whites aggressively confronting other whites’ racist performances and interactions backstage. This lack of assertive confrontation was true for the journal writers themselves, even when they later said that they should have intervened. Many of our white college students commented later in their diaries that they recognized their friends and relatives were indeed doing racist stuff, but said they were still “nice people” to be with–that is, whites doing even extreme racist performances are given a “pass” and viewed at though they are doing something relatively harmless, like picking their nose.

Reviewing thousands of accounts that the college student writers provide, we estimate that no more than one percent indicate that at least one white person in a setting took some dissenting action, such as a strong verbal demurral or more active counter at the time of a racist incident. In the rare cases, white women were more likely than white men to try to hold other whites accountable for their actions.

Interestingly, in several of our relatively few accounts of active dissent, those whites who break with the traditional expectations and take some action to counter the racist performances of other whites act thus to protect intimate friends or relatives who are people of color. Apparently, very few whites take aggressive antiracist action solely because of a commitment to the egalitarian tradition of protest against racial inequality that erupts periodically in U.S. history–the antiracist protest that takes seriously the framing of society in terms of “liberty and justice for all.”

Our research also suggests that anti-racist action can be (modestly) socially costly even for privileged whites, such as losing friends, which is one likely reason it is rare even for whites who know racism is quite wrong. At least our students see such anti-racist action as potentially costly for them.

Seeing Racial Bias: Barry Dunham vs. Barack Obama

A new study suggests that names significantly change our perception of a person’s face and their racial identity.

Indeed, if Barack Obama had taken his mother’s last name, Dunham, and used the first name common in his earlier in life, Barry, people today might have a very different perception of him.   The study, called “Barack Obama or Barry Dunham?” and conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales, set out to test the hypothesis that the presence of racially-suggestive names would influence participants’ perception of identical multiracial faces (image from here) .

Participants were shown a face and name for 3 seconds, then asked to rate the appearance of the face on a 9-point scale, where 1=”very Asian-looking” and 9=”very European-looking.”   The researchers found that the study participants rated multi-racial faces with European names as looking significantly “more European” than exactly the same faces when given Asian names.  In an interview, one of the researchers, Kirin Hilliar a UNSW PhD student, summarizes the study’s significance this way:

“The study reveals how socially derived expectations and stereotypes can influence face perception.  The result is consistent with other research findings suggesting that once people categorize a face into a racial group, they look for features consistent with that categorization.”

This sort of research seems to lend credibility to the importance of cognitive frames for shaping our thinking about race.    And indeed, this study seems to go beyond this to suggest that these cognitive frames are so powerful they even shape the way we see people.   We tend to see physical characteristics through a frame that selectively highlights certain attributes and codes those as racial signifiers.  This is important for sociologists and other scholars because many of our basic research relies on old notions of “race” as defined by a “group of people who share similar physical characteristics” (as the intro text I’m currently using defines it).   This leads to all sorts of logical fallacies about “shared characteristics” rooted in biology that simply don’t hold up to rigorous investigation or when examined in light of historical context (e.g., recall that the Irish and the Italians were once regarded as “biologically distinct” from white Americans).   “Race” is a social construct that we learn to see through a number of cultural cues including names.