Subtle Racism Harasses Brain

Decoding 'Ambiguous' Prejudice Interferes With Mental Tasks

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 21, 2007

Sept. 21, 2007 - Subtle racism interferes with black people's mental function even more than overt racism does, a psychological study shows.

For whites, who are much less often the targets of prejudice, overt racism interferes with mental function more.

"It appears that blacks are particularly vulnerable to cognitive impairment resulting from exposure to ambiguous prejudice -- a level of prejudice whites may not even register," conclude Princeton University psychologists Jessica Salvatore, PhD, and J. Nicole Shelton, PhD.

'Blatant' vs. 'Ambiguous' Racism

Salvatore and Shelton enrolled 122 African-American and 128 white Princeton undergraduates in their study. They were told they were going to participate in two different studies (in reality, they were two parts of the same study).

In the first part of the study, participants were told they would be evaluating a company's hiring decisions. They were shown résumés from job candidates. One was from a candidate who was clearly unqualified because of mediocre grades from a "mediocre" school. Another was from the most-qualified candidate, a Yale graduate with good grades, strong job experience, and impressive school activities.

It was clear from the résumés whether the job candidates were white or African-American. Half the time the unqualified candidate was white and the highly qualified candidate was African-American. For the other half, the conditions were reversed.

The study participants were also shown hiring recommendations from what they were told were human resource officers for the company. Participants were told the officer was a white male when the unqualified job candidate was white and the highly qualified candidate was African-American. They were told the officer was an African-American male when the unqualified job candidate was African-American and the highly qualified candidate was white.

Participants were assigned to one of three groups: blatant prejudice, ambiguous prejudice, or no-prejudice. The no-prejudice group saw recommendations that advised hiring the most-qualified candidate. The prejudice groups saw hiring recommendations that always chose the least-qualified subject -- a person of the same race as the officer.

Under the blatant prejudice condition, the hiring recommendations contained obviously racist comments (such as noting that the African-American candidate "belonged to too many minority organizations" or that the white candidate "was a typical white prep-school kid").

Under the ambiguous-prejudice condition, the hiring recommendations contained no such racist comments -- the least-qualified, same-race candidate was recommended without a clear reason.

In the second part of the study, participants then were given a test requiring full concentration, in which they had to name the color in which words such as "red" or "blue" were written.

Subtle Racism Wastes Brain Power

Witnessing the blatant prejudice lowered white participants' scores on the test, but not the scores of African-American participants. However, African-American participants did much worse on the test after witnessing the ambiguous prejudice.

"Blacks are better prepared to cope with blatant prejudice than whites are, at least in terms of the short-term effects on performance of cognitive tasks," Salvatore and Shelton suggest. This, they say, is because African-Americans have experienced prejudice and have learned to deal with it, not because such prejudice is harmless.

But when African-Americans have to deal with more subtle prejudice -- prejudice that whites tend not to recognize -- it consumes mental resources.

"Targets of prejudice may experience cognitive impairment as they try to determine the cause underlying the negative events they encounter in their lives," Salvatore and Shelton conclude.

They report their findings in the September issue of Psychological Science.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Salvatore, J. and Shelton, J.N. Psychological Science, September 2007; vol 18: pp 810-815. News release, Association for Psychological Science.

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