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Understanding Social Stigmas

October 13, 2010

With racism still prevalent in the 21st century, taking about the color of someone’s skin — even if it’s your own — can be a sensitive subject.  A recent study looks at how African-Americans and Caucasians identify with their own racial group, and shows that you may not be able to truthfully say how you feel about your own race.

Contemporary racism is not conscious, and it is not accompanied by dislike, so it gets expressed in indirect, subtle ways.  That “stealth” discrimination reveals itself in many different situations.  One of those ways happened to be in this study, conducted by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in the School of Science at IUPUI. Her work, which looked at both consciously controllable segments and gut feelings about social stigmas, found a significant difference in both groups between what people say they feel and their less controllable “gut feelings.”

Since the end of World War II, numerous studies of sigma have been conducted.  However, not until recent years have they looked primarily at explicit (recently learned) attitudes rather than at exclusively implicit measures of deep seated feelings acquired earlier in life and not consciously accessible.

To illustrate the difference between explicit and implicit measures, Ashburn-Nardo uses an example from everyday life.  “You may be asked how you feel and you respond, “I’m okay,” yet your body is showing signs of distress (e.g., high blood pressure or fast pulse rate).  You’re not necessarily lying when you say ‘I’m okay.’  It’s more likely that you just may not realize how stress is affecting you.  Explicit measures are much like your ‘I’m okay’ response to how you are whereas implicit measures are like the blood pressure cuff or stethoscope findings.  It’s important that we don’t rely exclusively on the asking and neglect the less easy to access information if we hope to increase our understanding of stigma and be in a position to help people.”

The study revealed that African-Americans consciously reported that they favored their own race, identified with their own race, and felt significantly better about themselves at a rate much higher than Caucasians.  However, when tested on non-conscious feelings, that was not the case.  African-Americans favored their race less and less strongly identified with their own race than Caucasians.  The study furthermore revealed that African-Americans as well as Caucasians had positive gut feelings about themselves.

“This study provides a greater understanding of how stigma affects people in ways in which they are unwilling or unable to report explicitly,” according to Ashburn-Nardo.  “For over half a century social psychologists have asked members of stigmatized groups how they feel about themselves and about the group to which they belong.  But they have only been learning part of the story ““ the perceptions individuals realize they have, not the ones they may have internalized over a long period of time.  That is, people might suffer more from experiences with prejudice than they are able to report via questionnaires.”

SOURCE: “The Importance of Implicit and Explicit Measures for Understanding Social Stigma.”  The Journal of Social Issues, October 2010.




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