There’s new research that sheds some light on the motivation to end racism. Tracie 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.
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.