Racist – or just American?

The Globe and Mail

Did you know that you’re racist? Everyone is a bit, previous research has shown. Now, a new study suggests that culture may be to blame.

“There’s one idea that people tend to associate black people with violence, women with weakness or older people with forgetfulness because they are prejudiced. But there’s another possibility that what’s in your head is not you, it’s the culture around you,” lead researcher Paul Verhaeghen, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s school of psychology, said in a release.

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“And so what you have is stuff you picked up from reading, television, radio and the Internet. And that’s the question we wanted to answer: Are you indeed racist, or are you just an American?”

To figure out whether a link between racism and cultural influence exists, the researchers began by testing participants levels of prejudice with a questionnaire.

They then timed subjects’ responses to three types of word pairs: ones with words typically associated with stereotypes (for example, black-lazy, female-weak or old-lonely); ones that contain the first word but not the racist association (for example, black-goofy, female-uptight or old-playful); and pairs with words that are often related but do not reflect stereotypes (for example, night-cool or summer-sunny).

It is believed that fast response times to stereotypical pairings are evidence of gut-level racism, sexism or ageism.

Researchers also looked at how often the words they tested their subjects on were paired together in a collection of works known as the Bound Encoding of the Aggregate Language Environment (BEAGLE), a collection of books, magazine stories and newspaper articles that is generally thought to reflect U.S. culture.

The researchers compared the results of their subject tests with the BEAGLE. What they found was that study participants responded faster to pairs of words that were more frequently found together in the collection, regardless of whether they were stereotypical.

This led the researchers to conclude that the reactions were actually due to frequently seeing or hearing such pairs of words together.

“One of the things these findings suggest is that for those of us who, like me, very often feel guilty about these gut reactions you have and you’re not supposed to have is those gut reactions are normal and they have very little to do with you. They have more to do with the culture around you,” Dr. Verhaeghen said. “What is more important is your behaviour, rather than your gut reaction.”

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