On February 18, 2009, President Barack Obama’s newly appointed attorney general, Eric Holder, delivered a now infamous speech on race relations. In that speech—a call for the nation to hold frank conversations about race—Holder admonished:

In things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. ... We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by ‘American instinct’ and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.

Many people felt unfairly judged, and even attacked, by the attorney general’s words. After all, barely a month prior to Holder’s speech, the nation celebrated the inauguration of its first African American president—an election that for many symbolized its courage to move toward a post-racial society. Here was the nation’s newly minted attorney general chastising its citizens for lack of boldness, right after they’d made one of the most decisive displays against racism in American history.

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Yet contemporary research on interracial communication does lend some support to Holder’s claim that racial issues are especially difficult for Americans to discuss. Recent research by Sophie Trawalter and Jennifer Richeson, for example, has found that cross-race interactions provoke more anxiety than same-race interactions, and cross-race conversations are especially unnerving for white participants when they focus on the subject of race. Indeed, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., and its aftermath, suggests how challenging cross-race communication can still be for whites and African Americans alike.

Given these developments, we have to ask: How can a nation that embraces egalitarian ideals and recently elected its first African-American president still have such a hard time addressing topics that made this election so historic in the first place?

New psychological research has shed light on an answer. Paradoxically, as it turns out, these egalitarian ideals that many of us cherish, and that helped elect Barack Obama as our president, are the very same ideals that lead to awkwardness and nervousness in interracial conversations and interactions. This new research helps us understand the pitfalls surrounding interracial interactions—and reveals a guiding set of principles to help make them more positive and rewarding.

Detours on the road to equality

In a recent study, Nicole Shelton, Jennifer Richeson, Jessica Salvatore, and Sophie Trawalter conducted a laboratory experiment in which black and white volunteers were asked to talk about race relations—precisely the kind of discussion that would make them uncomfortable, by Attorney General Holder’s estimation. The researchers measured the white participants’ implicit racial bias—that is, the strength of their knee-jerk, subconscious associations between black people and negative stereotypes. Following the conversation, the black participants provided their impressions of their white partners.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the less biased the white partners were, the less their black partners liked them!

How do we make sense of these findings? Research by Jacquie Vorauer and Cory Turpie suggests that people who are low on prejudice want very much to show just how unprejudiced they are. As a result, they spend considerable energy monitoring their behavior—and can choke under the pressure of making a good impression. Thus, in Shelton and colleagues’ study, the less biased participants may have actually been unable to pay full attention to the interaction itself because they were mentally busy making sure that they were in no way doing anything to make themselves come off as prejudiced. Ironically, their efforts to prove their egalitarianism may have made them poor conversation partners.

These findings echo other research that shows how a preoccupation with how one is perceived can undermine performance. For example, among minority group members, worries about confirming negative stereotypes and concerns about being the target of prejudice can undermine academic or job performance, trigger stress reactions, and lead people to avoid intergroup interactions altogether. Recently, psychologists Phil Goff, Claude Steele, and Paul Davies have proposed that during interracial interactions—and particularly when discussing race-related issues—whites may also experience the disruptive effects that stem from the threat of being stereotyped.

But what stereotype could whites feel threatened by? Goff and his colleagues speculate that it’s the stereotype of being prejudiced—the “questioning of one’s character” that Holder referred to. And just as black people’s concerns about confirming a negative stereotype impairs their performance, regardless of how skilled they actually are, white people’s concerns about confirming a stereotype of a “white racist” can impair their behavior in interracial interactions, regardless of their actual level of prejudice. The stereotypes are different, the situations are different—but the processes are the same for blacks and whites.

Goff and his colleagues conducted an experiment that demonstrates this effect. The researchers had White participants arrange three chairs so that they could have a conversation with two black partners about racial profiling. The results showed that regardless of how prejudiced they were, the more participants were worried about confirming the white racist stereotype, the greater distance they put between themselves and their partners when arranging the chairs. It was their anxiety about seeming prejudiced, not their actual level of prejudice, that caused them to distance themselves from a person of a different race.

Why can’t you read my mind?

Of course, even though behavior like that chair placement is motivated by an attempt to not seem racist, others usually can’t just guess our good intentions. What is surprising, however, is that we behave as if the people we meet should, in fact, be mind readers—and we react negatively when they don’t.

For instance, Jacquie Vorauer has shown that people in cross-race encounters, and particularly people lower in prejudice, expect their anxiety and their egalitarian attitudes to be transparent to their partners. But of course, these partners can’t read their minds, they can only read their behavior—and as other research shows, this behavior is often tentative and awkward.

In related research, Jennifer Richeson and Nicole Shelton have shown that while both whites and blacks are actually interested in interracial interaction, both groups assume that the other group is not interested—and neither initiates interaction, based on this false assumption. When Richeson and Shelton asked participants why they failed to interact with someone of a different race in a certain social situation, members of each group correctly said they avoided contact because they feared rejection, but they misattributed the other group’s avoidance to lack of interest.

Unfortunately, these types of crossed signals can exacerbate an already stressful, delicate situation. In my own laboratory, my colleagues and I have found that when people feel their negative expectations for a cross-race interaction have been confirmed—when they think the other person is avoiding or behaving awkwardly toward them—they often react with strong feelings of anger and anxiety. This, in turn, makes it less likely they’ll have the future interactions that might someday challenge their negative expectations.

A skill to learn

What hope do we have for heeding Attorney General Holder’s advice to hold frank conversations about race, if interracial communication is such a minefield? As it turns out, there is plenty of ground for optimism. But first, we need to re-examine our common assumption that people are either prejudiced or they’re not. Usually, the truth isn’t so simple.

To understand why, consider classic research in social psychology by Patricia Devine, who has found that our minds are often the site of a battle between “automatic” and “controlled” components of prejudice. The automatic components are the associations that automatically come to mind as a result of how we’ve been socialized—a product of the world around us, from what we heard in our family growing up to the media we consume. These knee-jerk reactions can be useful—they’re what make the word “snake” automatically activate a network of associations like “bite,” “danger,” and “run.” But they’re also what make a word like “Mexican” activate concepts such as “lazy” or “illiterate” for many people. Many of us fear that these fleeting associations reveal who we “really” are, like an X-ray into our true selves. By this reasoning, thinking stereotypic thoughts, or even acknowledging that we are aware of another person’s race, can feel threatening, because these might signal that, deep down, the answer to the question “are you prejudiced?” is unambiguously “yes.”

However, research also shows that these automatic associations exist alongside controlled, intentional behavior—efforts to reject and replace the fleeting, automatic stereotypes that sometimes cross our minds. Our intentional, egalitarian desire to not be prejudiced is a legitimate expression of our character. Research consistently shows that we can override our automatic associations through our behavior, and can even unlearn our automatic associations with enough practice. Thus we’re not simply either egalitarian or prejudiced; egalitarianism is a learned skill. 

In fact, in a follow-up study by Phil Goff and his colleagues, they found that when people approached conversations about race with the goal to learn from one another, rather than a goal to be evaluated positively, whites put their chairs significantly closer to black partners than they had in the earlier study.

Interracial interactions can also be improved by acknowledging, rather than ignoring, group differences. Adopting a “colorblind” strategy in which one ignores group differences may seem like a good idea, especially if you’re worried that even noticing race might mean that you’re prejudiced. However, a wealth of research in both sociology and psychology shows that this strategy can actually increase racial bias. This is because race is almost impossible not to notice, and thus the very act of monitoring whether we are noticing race makes it come to mind even more. By contrast, a “multicultural” perspective, in which group differences are acknowledged and celebrated, tends to be associated with less racial bias and more positive cross-race interactions for whites and blacks alike.

Contact, time, and patience

In light of all this research, I believe the path to more positive interracial interactions may lie in three fairly simple prescriptions. Attorney General Holden highlighted the first—there must be opportunities for contact (a point lost in the furor over his use of the phrase “nation of cowards”). The ability for people to spend time with each other can help improve interracial attitudes dramatically. In fact, this effect is so powerful that even the knowledge that one’s friends have friends of a different race or ethnicity can improve one’s own attitudes about that group—an effect labeled by Steve Wright and colleagues as the “extended contact effect.” The extended contact effect has been shown to be very influential. For example, Shelton and Richeson have found that when participants are told that their own best friends enjoyed interacting with members of another group, those participants were less likely to believe that members of this group were uninterested in intergroup interaction.

But the second and third prescriptions, time and patience, are just as critical. Without them, in fact, the positive effects of intergroup contact may not have time to take root. In my own research on cross-race friendship formation, for example, we found that those people who had a wealth of prior interracial contact (and were thus most comfortable in new interracial pairs) elicited the greatest stress reaction from partners who had been expecting a negative interaction. Why? Because challenges to our expectations, be they positive or negative, means we cannot predict our environment, and this itself is stressful.

Happily, over time, these pairs achieved cross-race friendship—and that is precisely the point. Research suggests that frank conversations around race are likely to be laden with negative expectations, so the beginnings of these conversations are likely to be rocky. We need patience for ourselves and others—not only in how to unlearn our biases and negative expectations, but also in how to learn from each other during our interracial interactions. And we need time—time to allow each other to be understood, time for us to relax, time for us to simply talk and get to know each others as human beings.

There is an old Mexican saying that goes, hablando se entiende la gente—talking is how people understand each other. My mom used to say this to me and my sister when we were fighting, as a way to remind us that we were not taking each other’s perspectives into account. The saying is so simple that it sounds almost obvious, but it helps to underscore that we need to find common ground between groups that typically view each other with unease. Recognizing this need, Attorney General Holder proposed Black History Month as a time to hold conversations across the racial divide. But rather than grit our teeth and dig in our heels for intense public debate, we can instead begin by acknowledging that such conversations are an everyday learning process, requiring nurturance and compassion.

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