Study: Racism Rooted in Small Things People Say and Do

New study looks at prejudicial attitudes toward blacks among undergraduates at a university in the South.

University students on a busy stairway. (Getty Images)

University students on a busy stairway. (Getty Images)

While overt and blatant expressions of prejudice seem to have declined on American university campuses over the last few decades, racism is still evident in the small things that white students say and do, says a new study in Springer’s journal Race and Social Problems.

This is especially true for those who think that minorities are too sensitive about race issues, according to the authors of the study, which is the first to ask white American students how inclined they are to deliver statements that contain so-called microaggressive messages about people of other races.

“There has been some question in the academic community as to whether microaggressions are indicators of racism or simply benign cultural errors,” says Monnica Williams, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, and a study author. “These might appear to be harmless, but are in fact forms of everyday racism or discrimination – they are not benign. ”

Microaggressive messages refer to brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.

The study included 33 black and 118 non-Hispanic white undergraduate students between 18 and 35 years old at a large public university in the South. Participants completed online questionnaires about their likelihood to engage in microaggression, and the contexts in which such behavior was experienced or used. White students also answered questions about their explicit contemporary prejudicial attitudes towards blacks, compared to more “old-fashioned” overt racism.

The results suggest that the likelihood of students participating in microaggression across five common contexts goes hand in hand with several validated measures of prejudice.

Specifically, white students who reported that they were more likely to be microaggressive were more likely to endorse colorblind, symbolic, and modern racist attitudes. They also held significantly less favorable feelings and attitudes toward black people. This was especially true for white students who thought that minorities are “too sensitive” about matters related to racial prejudice.

Almost all of the black respondents considered being called “too sensitive” to be racist in some form or another.

“These findings provide empirical support that microaggressive acts are rooted in racist beliefs and feelings of deliverers, and may not be dismissed as simply subjective perceptions of the target,” write the authors. “The delivery of microaggressions by white students is not simply innocuous behavior and may be indicative of broad, complex, and negative racial attitudes and explicit underlying hostility and negative feelings toward black students.”