To fight racism, watch BET

August 27, 2010


That’s the lesson I took from this story I wrote last December for Scientific American:

Popular television shows that put black and white characters on an equal footing as doctors or detectives may still be transmitting racial bias nonverbally, according to a new study. Researchers found that in a selection of brief, silent clips from 11 prime-time television shows, white characters were consistently rated as behaving more positively toward other white characters than toward black ones, even when the black characters were deemed equal to their white counterparts in attractiveness, kindness and intelligence.

“What this suggests is the media is one of the mechanisms of how we see people’s true feelings and therefore how we form our own biases,” says John Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University who did not take part in the study. “The nonverbal behavior really conveys what people are thinking and feeling, and that’s why it’s so potent.”

[R]esearchers from Tufts University selected 10-second clips from shows such as ScrubsHouse and Grey’s Anatomy , which feature black and white doctors in starring roles, and other programs including CSI and Friday Night Lights.

To assess whether characters of both races were being treated equally, the researchers cropped out a single character from each clip, either white or black, and turned off the sound. Then they asked white college students to rate how much the remaining on-screen characters, who were white, liked or were positive toward the cropped-out character. After averaging the students’ ratings, the researchers found that in nine out of 11 shows, white characters exhibited less favorable reactions toward cropped-out black characters than toward white ones. In the two shows where black characters were more favored, the bias toward them was less pronounced than the bias toward whites in the other shows.

The researchers then reinserted the cropped-out characters and prepared selections of silent clips in which the favorability ratings of the featured white characters were higher than those of the featured black characters. After watching the videos, students were quicker to associate white faces than black ones with positive terms such as peace and love. (Scientists say these so–called implicit associations capture the potential for subtly biased behavior.)

When researchers reversed the pattern and showed students videos in which the black characters were the ones treated more favorably, the students were then quicker to associate positive words with black faces. Students exposed to the pro-black videos also expressed less prejudice against black people on a standardized questionnaire.

I’m sharing this now to make up for the negative tone of my because in my last post I complained about a scientific treatment of racism that essentially took racism for granted, as opposed to showing a way forward.

PS: Of course, the study didn’t address what happens when White folk view positive interactions between real Black folk, such as you might find on the Mo’nique Show. But I figure it can’t hurt to seek out that kind of thing.


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