Ambiguous racism is more detrimental to African American students’ performance on a mental task than is blatant racism, psychologists have shown. By contrast, the reverse is true for White students, for whom blatant racism is more distracting.
Jessica Salvatore and Nicole Shelton say their results reflect the fact that Black students have coping mechanisms at hand to deal with blatant prejudice, but are more distracted by an ambiguous scenario. “Uncertainty about others’ prejudice leaves marginalised individuals unable to discern which coping strategies would be most appropriate to the situation,” they said.
The researchers asked 250 Princeton undergrads to read fictitious job candidates’ CVs, and the hiring decisions of the pretend company they had applied for. Shortly afterwards the students completed the famous Stroop test, which measures cognitive control by repeatedly asking participants to name the ink colour a word is written in, while ignoring the colour name spelt out by the letters.
The Black students’ performance suffered more after they read about a White employer selecting an inferior White candidate over a better qualified Black candidate (ambiguous racism), compared with when they read about a White employer saying they had rejected a superior Black candidate because he had been a member of too many minority organisations (blatant racism).
However, for White students it was the blatant racism that was more distracting. The researchers said this was because the White students weren't used to dealing with overt racism and didn't even notice the ambiguous racism.
Salvatore, J. & Shelton, J.N. (2007). Cognitive costs of exposure to racial prejudice. Psychological Science, 18, 810-815.