R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Showing White People What It Means to Black People
Interracial interactions can be awkward and intimidating to both White and Black people. Many White people do not have frequent interactions with Black people and may be uncertain of what to do when they do have one. What should they talk about? How can they convey their nonprejudiced beliefs? Is there a “good” or “bad” way to approach these interactions?
These are good questions to ask and it is understandable that even the most well-intentioned and non-racist White people may be apprehensive about interacting with Black people. As a White woman who grew up in a small town with no Black people, for many years I too had these questions. So, when I started graduate school, I decided to use the science of psychology to better understand the experiences of White people in interracial interactions.
My coauthor, Dr. Ashby Plant, had shown that people can be motivated to be nonprejudiced for two quite different reasons: a true belief in equality (an internal reason) or concerns about what other people think of them (an external reason). In general, among White people, greater internal motivation is associated with positive interracial interactions, whereas greater external motivation is associated with negative interracial interactions. Missing from her research and the research of other people who studied interracial interactions was who the “middle (wo)man” was. I wondered what were internally motivated White people thinking and doing in these interactions that made them go well, and what were externally motivated people thinking and doing that made them go poorly?
But wait!!! It takes two to tango. Before asking White people about their perspective, we had to stop and think about the perspective of Black people. Therefore, we asked 99 Black people to describe what makes them feel respected when having an interaction with a White person and, among other things, they said that they felt respected when they are treated as intelligent and capable, in a way that is contrary to the stereotype that Black people are not smart. And, importantly, when White people focus on them and try to get to know them.
With this new information, Dr. Plant and I performed new studies. In three of them, White peopled imagined they were going to have an interaction with a Black person they had not met before. Then we asked them:
- How concerned they would be with showing the Black person that they think they are smart and intelligent
- How concerned they would be with showing that Black person they are not racist, and
- Would they focus on their own thoughts and behaviors and/or the thoughts and behaviors of the Black person?
We found that the more internally motivated the White people were, the more they thought about treating the Black person with respect by acknowledging their intelligence, and in turn the more they intended to focus on the Black person in the interaction. On the other hand, the more externally motivated the people were, the more they thought about trying not to appear prejudiced, which in turn impacted their choice to focus on themselves during the interaction.
In two more studies, we tested whether the same thing would happen when White people actually thought they were going to have an interaction with a Black person. Participants viewed a “getting to know you” video that a Black person supposedly made for them and then they made their own video for this Black person. Then, participants answered the same questions as above. Just like we found in our other studies, greater internal motivation was associated with thoughts about being respectful to their partner, and respectful behavior such as saying “hello” to acknowledge their partner at the beginning of the video they made or remembering more details about their supposed Black interaction partner. However, external motivation was only associated with being concerned about appearing prejudiced.
So can White people learn from this? Can this research make White people more comfortable talking to Black colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances? We think yes. A first good step is for White people to try not to be so concerned about appearing prejudiced when interacting with Black people. Although this is easier said than done, when White people focus on not appearing prejudiced, they may unintentionally get too swept up in managing that impression to engage in the positive thoughts and behaviors that make the interaction go well! So instead of focusing on themselves in interracial interactions, White people should try to focus on what makes Black interaction partners feel respected and try to get to know them by engaging in meaningful conversations.
For Further Reading
LaCosse, J., & Plant, E. A. (2020). Internal motivation to respond without prejudice fosters respectful responses in interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1037–1056. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000219
Bergsieker, H. B., Shelton, J. N., & Richeson, J. A. (2010). To be liked versus respected: Divergent goals in interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 248–264. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018474
Kunstman, J. W., Plant, E. A., Zielaskowski, K., & LaCosse, J. (2013). Feeling in with the outgroup: Outgroup acceptance and the internalization of the motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(3), 443–457. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033082
Jennifer LaCosse is a post-doctoral researcher of social psychology at Indiana University. Her research examines interracial interactions and barriers to racial, social, and gender equity in higher education.