Tag Archives: racism

When “The Black Sheep” Is White

By: Megan E. Birney

2011 marks 10 years since the mixed-race category was added to the U.K.’s annual censes.  To commemorate this event, BBC Two has been running a series of programmes documenting the mixed-race experience both in Britain and around the world.

One of familys profiled in the series are the Kellys.  While the Kellys are mixed race (the father, Errol, is black and the mother, Alyson, is white), what makes them truly extraordinary is that in 1993, Alyson gave birth to twin boys — one black and one white.

How is this possible?  According to population geneticist Dr. Jim Wilson, Errol’s Jamaican heritage holds the answer. In the days of slavery, white men raping black women were common practice and, as a result, most blacks from outside of Africa have a mix of African and European DNA.  In the case of the Kellys, Errol passed his African DNA to his son James (resulting in James’ black skin) but passed his European DNA to his son Daniel (resulting in Daniel’s white skin).

Not surprisingly, being twins with different skin colours was difficult for James and Daniel growing up.  What is surprising, however, is that it was Daniel – the white twin – that endured the bulk of the racist abuse from students at the all-white school the twins attended.  His mum explains that situation like this: “Those kids couldn’t stand the fact that, as they saw it, this white kid was actually black.  It was as though they wanted to punish him for daring to call himself white.”

According to research by Yzerbyt, Leyens, and Bellour (1995), we are quick to reject ingroup members that are not in line with what is required for group membership.  Because the identity of the group is put at stake by misidentifying an ingroup member, we tend to be especially careful when allowing new members in.  If misidentification does occur, there is a “Black Sheep Effect” in which the “bad” ingroup member is chastised more than a similarly “bad’” outgroup member.  In other words, if an ingroup member and an outgroup member both exhibit an undesirable behaviour, we are likely to be much harder on the ingroup member.

Akin to this theory, the white students at the twins’ school punished Daniel because they had identified him as white (and hence an ingroup member) when he was, in actuality, half black.  Such behaviour from these white students illustrates just how important race is in how we identify both others and ourselves.  While the U.K and the rest of the world have come quite far in how we perceive mixed race people, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

Yzerbyt, V., Leyens, J., Bellour, F. (1995). The ingroup overexclusion effect: Identity concerns in decisions about ingroup membership. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25 (1), 1-16.

Black and White Twins: The Guardian, Saturday September 24, 2011

Priming racist symbol promotes racist voting

By: Erica Zaiser

Since the media is already beginning to review the last US presidential election in order to predict the next one, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a recent article in Political Psychology about the 2008 election. In their pre-election study, the researchers found that priming images of the confederate flag decreased white voters willingness to vote for Obama. Even when assessing a hypothetical black candidate, white participants evaluated the candidate more negatively after being exposed to the confederate flag. However, this wasn’t just an increase in negative attitudes in general, because there was no effect on attitudes towards white candidates.

This isn’t particularly surprising when you think about it. As the authors explain, by priming the confederate flag,  negative attitudes towards blacks are more accessible. However, these studies are good examples of how something somewhat obvious for psychologists in the lab is still striking when you think about the ramifications it can have in the “real world”. Especially when you realize that the results were controlling for political orientation and personal racial attitudes. So it wasn’t that people who already held strong racist views were reminded of their own beliefs; instead, people exposed to the image accessed a set of racist cultural beliefs that the flag represents, regardless of their personal attitudes towards race or politics.

I wanted to write about this because it’s interesting and important to be aware of. I am also worried that psychologists shouldn’t draw too much attention to this effect or we are going to see this type of priming used (or used more) on the campaign trail.

Read more: Exposure to confederate flag affects willingness to vote for Obama

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“Me a bigot? No way, I hate them!”

After being caught calling one of his own Labour supporters a bigot when he thought he was off microphone, Gordon Brown has been apologizing and recanting his statement at every opportunity. His reference to Gillian Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman” came after her comments about Eastern European immigration, something many in Britain feel is a growing problem. Of course, the news has focused on the aftermath of Brown’s gaffe and his attempts to apologize to Duffy. Meanwhile, Duffy seemed completely shocked that anything she said would have implied she was prejudiced. What the news has not focused on is whether or not she really is a bigot. Few people would agree they were in fact a bigot, despite their prejudicial views, because nobody ever thinks they are one.

Past research (using implicit measures and physiological responses) has shown that most people are prejudiced to some extent. But, most people, even those with extreme prejudices, deny such attitudes. According to recent research highlighted in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this may be because exposure to representations of prejudice in culture promotes the self-belief that individuals are not prejudiced. In a series of experiments, the authors exposed American participants to bigot stereotypes (through either priming or more explicit media representations) and found that those participants exposed rated themselves as less prejudiced than those who were not exposed beforehand. The authors suggest that this is due to cues of prejudice providing targets for downward social comparison. So, if exposure to bigot cues can lead people to believe they are less bigoted, then perhaps all the campaign focus on anti-immigration and the recent surge in support for racist parties like the BNP will lead other British people to think they are less bigoted than they actually are.

Read more: But I’m No Bigot: How Prejudiced White Americans Maintain Unprejudiced Self-Image

Read more: The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism


Mad Scientists: Can we ever revisit Milgram’s diabolical studies?

By Erica Zaiser

Every student of social psychology remembers studying Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment. His studies shaped future thinking about authority, extreme group behavior, and morality. Many of those same psychology students, captivated by the lure of such exciting and revealing studies, would have also learned that you can no longer actually do that kind of research anymore.

The BBC recently reenacted the Milgram experiment for TV and now, the French have added their own twist. The BBC recently reported on a French TV documentary, which showed that under the guise of a game show, contestants were willing to send an electrical shock to other contestants– sometimes at dangerous levels. These types of TV “experiments” are not subject to the same ethical considerations social psychologists are. Of course, this also means they are also not subject to the same expectation of scientific rigour.  It’s always somewhat exciting to see confirmation (even in a highly unscientific setting) that what was shown by Milgram in the 60s may  still hold true today. However, the potential harm to participants from that type of experiment justifies the ethical limitations preventing such research.

Is there a middle ground?

Some psychologists have found that they can still re-do old experiments but also reduce potential harm to their participants by moving the experiments from the physical world into a virtual world. Two researchers in France used virtual reality to re-examine Milgram’s ideas. Like Milgram, they found that participants showed more obedience when they couldn’t see the victim and they also found that participants felt less distress when the victim was from North Africa than when he was of their same ethnic background.  Virtual reality has opened up a way for psychologists to do research on extreme behaviour, but minimize harm to participants.  Perhaps both psychologists and participants can benefit from future use of virtual reality as a medium for experiments.

Read more: Reopening the study of extreme social behaviors: Obedience to authority within an immersive video environment

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‘You are not welcome here’

For humans onlyThe science-fiction film ‘District 9′ is currently on cinematic release within the United Kingdom. Based on the short film ‘Alive in Joburg’, this feature film uses documentary style camera work to describe the plight of a large number of extraterrestrials that have become marooned on Earth. Referred to by humans using the derogatory term ‘prawns’, these aliens are confined to a militarised ghetto, where they face prejudice, discrimination, and exploitation.

With the film being set in South Africa, this has obvious parallels with the treatment of the black population during the apartheid era. This has been emphasised by the viral-marketing campaign for the film, which featured ‘humans only’ signs affixed to numerous public facilities, clearly mirroring the ‘whites only’ signs of apartheid. Consequently, the film joins a series of others that have utilised the medium of science-fiction to make social commentary on ‘real-world’ issues.

Rather ironically for an allegory about racism, however, ‘District 9′ has itself been accused of being racist, owing to its unflattering portrayal of Nigerians as gangsters, prostitutes and witch-doctors. This can be seen to follow the common practice of attributing negative characteristics to foreign nationality out-groups.

Whilst a return to the extremes of apartheid may seem unlikely , it is apparent that xenophobia is still prevalent within contemporary society. For example, the ‘Red White and Blue Festival’ of the far-right British National Party (BNP) took place recently only a few miles from my home. Clearly, the BNPs goal of keeping Britain British through the ‘repatriation’ of ethnic minorities has much in common with the ‘District 9′ tag-line of ‘You are not welcome here’.

Square-eyeOfficial ‘District 9′ website

Square-eyeFilm review from the Guardian

Square-eye£1.99 - smallPearson, A. R., Dovidio, J. F. & Gaertner, S. L. (2009). The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism

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‘It don’t matter if you’re black or white’ ?

Minstrel in 'black-face'The software giant Microsoft has recently created controversy by crudely editing an image appearing on its Polish business website so as to replace the head of a black man with that of a white man. Whilst the apparent intent of this action was to better reflect the reality of the Polish ethnic mix, it has been widely denounced as racist. This mirrors the converse situation, where a photo of a white family appearing in a Toronto guide was likewise ‘photoshopped’ in order to appear more ethnically diverse.

Although such ‘politically correct’ image manipulation may be readily satirised, it raises the important question as to the degree to which such images should reflect reality, as opposed to depicting some idealised goal. Such debate as to the morality of image fabrication is complicated by the fact that even unmanipulated promotional images are commonly taken from a photo library, and so do not feature genuine examples of the people they supposedly represent.

Similar transformations of ethnicity can also be seen to occur within a number of scenarios involving ‘real’ people, as opposed to images.

Whilst the racist parody of the ‘black-face’ minstrel is now unacceptable, many contemporary films continue to feature white actors playing black characters, as well as vice versa. In addition to providing popular entertainment, such transformations have also been utilised within revealing social studies exploring racism.

More recently, this topic has been highlighted by the case of Michael Jackson. Whilst he claimed his progressive skin-lightening was caused by the medical condition vitiligo, other sources have attributed it to a deliberate attempt to change himself into a white person. In that case such action can been seen as a form of social mobility, enabling transfer from a disadvantaged out-group to a privileged in-group.

Square-eyeMicrosoft ‘photoshopping’ story from the BBC

Square-eyeMicrosoft ‘photoshopping’ story from the Telegraph

Square-eye£1.99 - smallPearson, A. R., Dovidio, J. F. & Gaertner, S. L. (2009). The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism

Square-eye£1.99 - smallTuffin, K. (2008). Racist Discourse in New Zealand and Australia: Reviewing the Last 20 Years

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‘Thinking outside the Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’

Ich bin Brüno!Brüno, the latest work by British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, has just achieved the highest-grossing opening weekend for an 18-certificate (i.e. adult-rated) film in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

This ‘mockumentary’ revolves around the reactions of various celebrities and members of the public to Baron-Cohen’s portrayal of the eponymous flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista. Since those involved believed they were dealing with a genuine rather than fictional character, their responses to his outrageously exaggerated portrayal of stereotypical homosexuality provide a satirical comment on the prejudice and hypocrisy present within a supposedly enlightened modern society.

Extreme reactions provoked by the filming led to Baron-Cohen being both threatened with assault and arrested multiple times, as well as facing subsequent legal action. This mirrors the response to his previous controversial film of the same format, in which he played ‘Kazhakhstani’ Borat. Not only did this similarly result in legal action, but the ensuing furore culminated in an international diplomatic incident.

Whilst such films may claim to provide a revealing insight into homophobia, anti-semitism, and the like, they also raise uncomfortable questions for the audience themselves. For example, it is debatable as to whether they are truly viewed by all cinema-goers as a sophisticated piece of social commentary, or whether they simply allow the ‘politically correct’ an opportunity to laugh at otherwise unacceptable stereotypes.

In terms of their technical approach, many of the humorous scenarios featured within these films echo the ‘breach studies’ of ethnomethodologist Garfinkel, which examined the responses of unsuspecting participants to deliberate violations of social norms.

In a further psychological link, Sacha Baron-Cohen is the cousin of Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.

(And in case you were wondering, ‘Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’ is German for ‘speed-limit’!)

Square-eyeBrüno’s official MySpace page

Square-eyeFilm review from the Guardian

Square-eye£1.99 - smallSmith, J. R. & Louis, W. R. (2009). Group Norms and the Attitude–Behaviour Relationship

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