Left Side: Italian, Right Side: Foreigner
“Skin comes in many colors. Blood one only” (Source)

A study in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Science presents strong evidence that even people who aspire to tolerance — who would consider themselves nonracist — still harbor unconscious biases powerful enough to prevent them from confronting overt racists or from being upset by other people’s racist behavior. The authors say the results suggest attitudes so deeply ingrained that protective legislation and affirmative-action programs are required to overcome them. The results may even offer clues as to how other societies have spiraled into genocide.


120 non-black students (Yale, Toronto) who were told they were being recruited for an experiment on team-oriented problem-solving.


Group 1: direct experience
Group 2: video
Group 3: text


They were broken into three groups. The members of the first group were individually placed in a room with a black actor and a white actor, both posing as fellow participants in the study, and watched as the black actor slightly bumped the white actor while leaving the room. After the black actor had left, the white actor played out one of three scenarios, saying, “I hate it when black people do that,” “Clumsy n______” or nothing at all. None of the people in the two other study groups experienced the interactions directly; one group watched them on video and the other simply read about them.


After the incident, students were asked to choose one of the two actors — still posing as fellow participants — for the teamwork assignment.

Video Group: 80% would NOT choose white student
Reading Group: 75% would NOT choose white student

Participants in both groups said they were deeply upset by the racist comments.

Direct Experience Group:

None intervened to correct or disparage the white actor, nor did they report being upset by his comments when questioned later.

71% said they would choose white student regardless of the nature of her/his comments.

“People expect to feel much more emotion than they actually do. We are good at rationalizing responses,” says Jack Dovidio, a Yale psychologist and co-author of the study.

“I think this helps explain the big discrepancy in [North American] culture between what people say and think about racism and the actual persistence of racism in our society,” he says.

Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has found that Americans recognize negative words such as angry, criminal and poor more quickly after being exposed to a black face (often blacks do too), suggesting unconscious racist associations with black people.

“The most worrying aspect is that even if a small proportion of a society is active, old-fashioned racists, and if the majority of people who believe they are not racist rationalize away racist behavior and don’t intervene or even get upset when it occurs, then the society is going to be an unfair, unequal society,” Dovidio says.

“The results may explain how Nazi Germany happened.”

Dovidio says that unconscious biases can be overcome through self-awareness as North Americans learn to free blacks from the negative associations that have metaphorically fettered them for so long. As a measure of the difficulty of allowing our better angels to prevail, however, consider this question: Do you imagine those angels to be black?

Source: Time

Further Reading:

8 thoughts on “Unconscious Racism

  1. Interesting article. I checked the full article at Time and have to wonder if they’ve heard of Godwin’s Law before.

    I remember reading a study a few years ago that showed that white college educated people were much more racist then whites that only had a high school education.

    I do think the study would have been a better study if they found out what percentage of people would group with the black student after that scene was done.

    Also, I think they made too much from the white students stilling willing to group with the white student. For example, if I didn’t associate with people that are pro-choice (a position, for me, that’s even worse then being racist), there’d be a lot people that I couldn’t talk too.

  2. Yes, people tend to mention Hitler eventually.

    That’s an interesting study about education effect on racism. I wonder how they measured it.

    The question was open ended: what student you would choose?

    Would you then still choose a person who is pro-choice over the one who is pro-life?

  3. Funny how everyone seems to bring out the Hitler dust bunny when there’s a plethora of dictators to choose from. This is an intriguing and timely study, i’m currently reading The Nature Of Prejudice by Gordon W. Allport and suddenly what i’ve struggled to digest makes sense.

  4. Well, Hitler is the most salient example for many people.

    Ah, Allport is a great psychologist who also had many excellent students 🙂 Although this book is interesting, it is somewhat outdated. It would best to read some more recent books on the subject also. I am sure you’ll find a chapter dedicated to prejudice in an up-to-date textbook on social psychology with most current studies and theories 🙂

  5. I missed that, I read it to be would you partner with the white student?

    I’ve come into contact with many religious pro-life people that have grated on my nerves even when I agree with them 100% and I’ve been friends with many pro-choice people. So, if I had to choose, I’d pick the person that seems like the nicer person. It might be the pro-life person one time and the pro-choice person the next time or vice versa.

    Something that slipped my mind earlier was that this website http://implicit.harvard.edu/ has a variety of tests that can find a person’s hidden bias. And slow me just realized why Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji’s comments reminded me of this site – he’s probably involved with that website.

    1. Yes, that is a good way to look at it.

      Oh, thank you for reminding me about this website – I forgot about it! 🙂 I was first introduced to it in my Intro to Psychology class. This website is another demonstration how unconscious processes influence our life.

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