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Cultural Differences in Response to Racism

Update Date: Apr 13, 2012 01:20 AM EDT

Racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are sources of diversity that may explain why different targets of racism behave the way they do.

African Americans would be more likely to respond to racism directly, whereas Asian Americans would be more likely to respond indirectly and therefore more subtly, according to a new study.

"Our findings are consistent with Black women's cultural heritage, which celebrates the past accomplishments of other Black confronters of discrimination, as well as Asian women's heritage, which advises finding expedient resolutions in the name of peaceful relations," said Elizabeth Lee who conducted the research with co-lead author José Soto. 

The authors conducted two experiements to observe how people of different races react to a racist insult. 

In the first experiment, the researchers recruited Asian women and Black women talk to another college student online using Instant Messenger(IM). The conversation partner was actually a research assistant trained to make either a racist comment, like "Dating [Blacks/Asians] is for tools who let [Blacks/Asians] control them," or a parallel non-racist but still rude comment.

Participants then took part in what seemed like an unrelated taste test study to choose a candy for their conversation partner to eat. The participants could choose from an array of jellybeans that included good tasting and bad tasting jellybeans.

The transcripts of the IM conversations showed that African Americans were more likely to respond more directly. However, this difference in responding style goes away when you look at what kinds of jelly beans they gave the offending conversation partner. For the Asian women, the jelly bean selection served as an indirect method to respond to the racist comment.

The second study had a different set of Black and Asian participants imagine having a conversation with a stranger who makes a racist comment. The researchers then asked them about their anticipated response to the comment and their goals for their imagined behavior. The results showed that the Asian Americans were more likely to say they would not respond directly to keep the peace in the interaction. 

The findings highlight the complex interpersonal and intrapersonal factors at play in everyday racism and how these factors may vary meaningfully across targets of different cultures. 

One important finding, Lee says is that "responding to racism in what seems like a passive or indirect way does not indicate being any less offended by the racism compared to responding behavior that is more direct and verbal."  

"The goals we were interested in were based on the norms that should be sanctioned by either African American or Asian American culture for these kinds of situations," Lee said.

Lee hopes that the work will spur researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and educators to consider the importance of racial background when making recommendations for how people should handle interpersonal discrimination. 

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