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A better way to communicate with white people about racism

protestors clasp hands at a Black Lives Matter rally after the death of george floyd
Reuters/Kevin Mohatt
Protestors clasp hands in solidarity at a protest against racial inequality.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

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One popular explanation of how privilege works compares life as a straight white man to playing a video game on the lowest difficulty setting. There are still going to be obstacles in the game. You may have started playing with fewer powers than others. Even so, since you’re playing on the easiest setting, “the default barriers for completions of quests are lower,” writer John Scalzi explained in 2012. “Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for.”

Another tactic for anti-racist education in workplaces and schools often involves helping white people gain a better understanding not just of their own privilege, but of the particular difficulties faced by racial and ethnic minorities. If white people learn about how hard it can be for a Black person to get a job or receive equal pay, the thinking goes, they will be motivated to become better allies. For example, when Starbucks closed all its stores for racial bias training in 2018, workers were shown a short video called “The Story of Access,” focused on the discrimination that Black Americans experience in stores, restaurants, and other public spaces.

Why anti-racist education can backfire

But this approach can backfire, according to a new paper published in a journal called Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.

The study suggests that focusing exclusively on the challenges faced by a marginalized group can lead people in more privileged positions to adopt paternalistic attitudes toward the group in question, viewing members of the group as “helpless victims, rather than as competent individuals deserving of respect.”

Hmm, but ignoring the difficulties faced by people of color doesn’t seem like a particularly effective anti-racist tactic either, you might be thinking. A good point! The authors say that the key in communicating about inequality to discuss not just the difficulties faced by racial minorities or other stigmatized groups, but also the evidence of people’s resilience in the face of those difficulties.

Avoiding paternalism and cultivating respect

Social psychology researchers Stephanie Reeves, Crystal Tse, Christine Logel, and Steven J. Spencer arrived at this conclusion after performing a series of five studies with more than 2,000 white American participants. The studies used empathy interventions (such as asking the participants to write reflections on a Black student’s experiences during a typical day in his life). Then they asked participants about what words they might use to the describe the person, ranging from “intelligent,” “strong,” and “determined” to “weak,” “in need of help,” and “needs support.”

The researchers found that white participants who were primed to imagine not just the difficulties of the subject’s life, but also how the subject might go about handling those difficulties, had more positive views of the person in question. For example, participants who were asked to write about situations like how the Black student might feel when he “meets with his English professor to talk about his term paper, and what strategies he uses to get the most out of the feedback despite the professor’s potential doubts about his ability,” rated the student as more competent than those who were asked only to think about “how he might worry that the professor might judge his abilities in the light of negative stereotypes about Black people.”

The problem of positive stereotyping

There some important limitations to the paper, including the fact that the studies focused only on participants’ self-reported impressions (as opposed to their behavior). It also looked at perceptions of individuals from minority backgrounds, rather than entire groups.

The authors also note there may be circumstances in which focusing on resilience in the face of difficulties creates its own complications, such as prompting people to “downplay the consequences of stigma.” One real-life example of how this problem can play out can be found in the stereotype of the “strong Black woman“—a seemingly positive image that can do real harm by suggesting that Black women don’t need (and shouldn’t ask for) help and support. As Kumari Devarajan explains for NPR, “If we think Black women are strong, then there’s no reason to make the world more fair for them.”

Recognizing the “full humanity” of stigmatized people

With that in mind, there is certainly real value in discussing the obstacles that Black people and other marginalized groups face. The paper’s authors say they’re simply trying to push for conversations that “foster a broader understanding of stigmatized individuals in which their full humanity is recognized and appreciated.”

That’s a sentiment in keeping with recent pushback against cultural images of Black pain, as seen everywhere from pop culture (such as Amazon’s recent TV horror series Them or the 2020 movie Antebellum) to viral videos of police brutality. More and more, Black writers and thinkers are speaking out about the traumatizing effect of watching Black people suffer on screen, and the ways that the dominance of that narrative provides an extremely limited view of Black people’s lives. CNN writer John Blake recently declared, “There are vast regions of Black life that have nothing to do with suffering or oppression. We lead lives that are also filled with joy, romance, laughter and astonishing beauty, but those stories don’t tend to grab the headlines.”

Of course, conversations about racism and other forms of prejudice shouldn’t minimize the challenges that people face. But those conversations should surface the ways that people fight back and find agency in their own lives, too.

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