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Everyday racism: A comparison of African American and Asian American Women

Monday, April 23, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

There’s some intriguing new research out looking at how members of different cultures respond to overt racism. Think of your stereotypes of African American women and Asian American women. Now, think of which group you would predict would respond directly to racism and which group you would predict would be more likely to respond indirectly. If your stereotypes are like most, you likely concluded African American women would respond directly (be more confrontational about it) and Asian American women would respond indirectly (be less confrontational, more retiring).

And you would be right–at least according to this research. But the answer to the ‘why’ is pretty intriguing. Research is growing related to the negative impact of “everyday racism” on physical and mental health. Yet there is no research directly comparing different cultural or ethnic groups and their response to racism.

Researchers chose to compare African American women to Asian American women in their responses to racist comments by strangers.

Their interpretation of African American culture was that it may encourage women to engage in direct confrontation of racism. African Americans may also have a cultural norm of confronting racism as an act of social responsibility.

On the other end of the continuum, Asian American culture may well encourage women to have less assertiveness in interpersonal interactions in order to maintain harmony in the interaction. This results in common coping strategies of avoidance or accommodation. Asian American culture also endorses ‘self-silencing’ among women (to appear quiet, nonthreatening and compliant).

These researchers wanted to see if these stereotypes regarding the African American community norms and the Asian American community norms would find expression under scientific scrutiny. Naturally, they conducted a pair of studies to examine the question.

The first study showed African American women more likely than Asian American women to confront racist statements during an instant messaging interaction on interracial dating. The more racist African American women saw the comments as being, the more likely they were to confront the perpetrator.

In their second study, Asian American women were more likely than African American women to say they would either not respond to a racist statement or that they would respond indirectly. Asian American women reported a desire to “keep the peace” in their response to racist comments.

In both studies, there was no difference in the internal level of intensity with which the women [regardless of race] experienced the level of racism inherent in the interaction. Both African American and Asian American women saw the interactions as both racist and hurtful. They simply chose a different external reaction.

The researchers point to prior research saying that African Americans [both men and women] who do not confront racism end up with higher levels of anxiety and depression as they internally reproach themselves for not confronting the racist behavior. They hypothesize that these differing responses to racism for African American and Asian American women can be healthy for each as they are reinforced by cultural socialization.

In other words, African American women who confront racism directly are in line with their predecessors who confronted discrimination. Asian American women who do not confront racism directly are acting consistently with their heritage which emphasizes peaceful relations.

So what does this mean for litigation advocacy?

First, it serves as a reminder [one we hope is growing less necessary] to avoid racist statements or eliciting racist sentiments or testimony on direct exam.

Second, it tells us racist statements are offensive to women of both African American and Asian American descent and that we can’t always predict whether the external reaction will be direct or indirect–but there will be a reaction.

And third, it is a worthwhile reminder that while cultural awareness and sensitivity is always worthwhile, you might have to take it on faith that there is a cost to racist behavior that might not become immediately apparent. Whether the person immediately reacts to it or not, the impact is negative and lasting.

There remain times when, for purposes of litigation advocacy, it is better to talk about race and times it is better to stay silent. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we hope that one day strategies like this won’t work anymore.

Lee, EA, Soto, JA, Swim, JK, & Bernstein, MJ (2012). Bitter reproach or sweet revenge: Cultural responses to racism. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin.


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