Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Subtle Forms of Prejudice

As this brief overview shows, the roots of prejudice are many and varied. Some of the deepest and most intensively studied roots include personality factors such as right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, cognitive factors such as the human tendency to think categorically, motivational factors such as the need for self-esteem, and social factors such as uncharitable ingroup attributions for outgroup behavior. Research on these factors suggests that prejudiced attitudes are not limited to a few pathological or misguided individuals; instead, prejudice is an outgrowth of normal human functioning, and all people are susceptible to one extent or another.

Yet there is also reason for optimism; when viewed historically, there is no doubt that many virulent strains of prejudice and discrimination are on the decline. Gone are the days of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, of legalized slavery, of lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan. Gone are the days when most women worldwide could not vote or hold political office. In many countries multiculturalism and diversity are more widely embraced than ever before, as evident from the soaring popularity of world music and international cuisine; of cultural history and heritage celebrations; and of greater civil rights for historically stigmatized populations such as people with disabilities, indigenous and aboriginal groups, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

In response to these changes, psychological researchers have increasingly turned their attention from blatant forms of prejudice to more subtle manifestations (Crosby, Bromley, & Saxe, 1980; Page, 1997). This shift in focus does not imply that traditional displays of prejudice have disappeared, but rather, that contemporary forms of prejudice are often difficult to detect and may even be unknown to the prejudice holders.

Subtle Racism

Since the 1970s, researchers have studied several interrelated forms of subtle racism (see Table 3 for an overview). The central focus of this research has been on White prejudice toward Black people, and even though each form of subtle racism has distinct features, the results have consistently pointed in the same direction: White people are most likely to express anti-Black prejudice when it can plausibly be denied (both to themselves and to others).

Job interview Studies have found, for example, that Black job candidates and Black college applicants are likely to face prejudice when their qualifications are ambiguous but not when their qualifications are clearly strong or weak (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000; Hodson, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2002). Similarly, a study on obedience to authority found that White participants discriminated when selecting job applicants for an interview, but only when instructed to do so by someone in authority -- a situation that allowed them to deny personal responsibility and prejudice (Brief, Dietz, Cohen, Pugh, & Vaslow, 2000). In this rather disturbing study, roughly half the participants received a fictitious letter from the company's president saying:
Our organization attempts to match the characteristics of our representatives with the characteristics of the population to which they will be assigned. The particular territory to which your selected representative will be assigned contains relatively few minority group members. Therefore, in this particular situation, I feel that it is important that you do not hire anyone that is a member of a minority group. (p. 80)

Participants who received this statement selected fewer than half as many Black applicants for an interview as did participants who received no such statement. The bottom line: under conditions of attributional ambiguity that allow people to appear unprejudiced, even "subtle" forms of racism can exact an enormous toll on racial minorities.

Table 3. Forms of Subtle Racism

Name Primary Citations Description of Main Features
Kinder & Sears (1981); McConahay & Hough (1976); Sears (1988) Symbolic racists reject old-style racism but still express prejudice indirectly (e.g., as opposition to policies that help racial minorities)
Katz (1981) Ambivalent racists experience an emotional conflict between positive and negative feelings toward stigmatized racial groups
McConahay (1986) Modern racists see racism as wrong but view racial minorities as making unfair demands or receiving too many resources
Gaertner & Dovidio (1986) Aversive racists believe in egalitarian principles such as racial equality but have a personal aversion toward racial minorities

Subtle Sexism

Just as there is subtle racism, research shows there is subtle sexism. For example, Janet Swim and her colleagues (1995) have documented the presence of "modern sexism," a form of prejudice analogous to the "modern racism" listed in Table 3. In contrast to old-fashioned sexism -- which portrays women as unintelligent and incompetent -- modern sexism is characterized by a denial that sex discrimination continues to be a problem, antagonism toward women's groups, and a belief that the government and news media show too much concern about the treatment of women.

Studies also suggest that sexism is marked by an ambivalence similar to what Irwin Katz (1981) described in his theory of "ambivalent racism." According to Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (1996, 2001), "ambivalent sexism" includes two separate but interrelated components: (1) hostile sexism, which involves negative feelings toward women; and (2) benevolent sexism, a chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who adopt conventional gender roles. Because benevolent sexism may superficially seem like positive regard rather than prejudice, it can go unnoticed or even be perpetuated by women themselves (Glick et al., 2000). As in the case of positive stereotypes, however, benevolent sexism is far from benign. Not only does it restrict women's freedom and encourage dependence upon men, but the presence of benevolent sexism among females means that women often act as prisoner and guard at the same time.

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