How would respond if you heard someone being racist? If you're one of the majority who openly condemn racism, then you probably think you'd be perturbed and that you'd reject or reprimand the racist in some way. However, a new study by psychologists in Canada has found that students were largely unmoved when they heard a racist slur, and most of them failed to reject the perpetrator.
Dozens of multi-ethnic (but not black) students at York University in Canada were fooled into thinking that a white participant (actually an actor) in their group had responded in a racist way after a black participant (another actor) accidentally knocked his knee. Specifically, the white student participant was heard to say either: "Typical, I hate it when black people do that" or: "“clumsy *igger". In a control condition, no comment was made.
Afterwards, a brief mood questionnaire embedded among other irrelevant measures, showed that the students who heard one of the racist remarks were no more upset than the participants who heard no comment. Moreover, when asked to choose either the black or white participant to be their partner in a subsequent task, the majority of them chose the white participant, despite what he'd said.
By contrast, dozens of other students from the same University, who were randomly selected to imagine, but not participate in, these events, predicted that they would be distressed at hearing the racist comments and most said that they would subsequently choose the black participant to be their partner, rather than the racist white person.
A possible explanation for the mismatch could be that it is our non-conscious attitudes that influence our behaviour in a real situation - perhaps we harbour some latent racist beliefs - whereas we rely more our more conscious and deliberate attitudes when it comes to predicting how we'll behave.
"...despite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions," Kerry Kawakami and colleagues said, "one reason why racism and discrimination remain so prevalent in society may be that people do not respond to overt acts of racism in the way that they anticipate".
Kerry Kawakami, Elizabeth Dunn, Francine Karmali, John F. Dovidio (2009). Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism. Science, 323, 276-278
Link to podcast interview with lead author.