The Toll of Subtle Racism

Blatant, overt racism is easy to spot — but what about subtle racism? And are there measurable cognitive effects that come as a result of witnessing not-so-obvious racism?

A fascinating psychological study reported on the We’re Only Human blog measures the cognitive effects of subtle racism, and shows that it may affect people more adversely than blatant, overt racism.

In the study, participants were exposed to covert racism in a fictitious job interview situation, and those who were exposed performed less well in a specific cognitive test than those who had not been exposed.

The suggestion, which makes a lot of sense to me, is that when the situation is clear as in the case of blatant racist abuse, the victim does not have to spend the slightest bit of energy on a cognitive, or indeed any other, level, interpreting the situation. It is clear, and it is easy enough to mobilise energy in order to confront the injustice. Righteous anger in my experience clears the mind and mobilises you beautifully!

When it is not clear what is going on, though, you can waste a great deal of energy trying to understand what is happening. While this study concentrates on the way in which cognitive resources are being used up trying to interpret the situation — “was that racism at work or am I just paranoid? Maybe I wasn’t really the best person for the job? Maybe it’s my problem and I’m seeing racism everywhere…” — I would suggest that energy on all levels, emotional, physical and spiritual, is wasted in such unclear situations. And people in such circumstances become unable to use their full potential.

The problem is that while intuition is almost always faultless, you come to doubt it and doubt yourself, because the information you need to complete the picture, the racist’s real attitude, is not given to you. You end up doubting yourself, your perceptions and your intuition. There may be no better way to damage a person than to act towards them with prejudice while pretending that you are not doing so.

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