Research & Insights

Messaging on Race Isn’t Black and White

The recent killing of African American worshippers in a church in South Carolina revealed strains of racism that still run deep in American society. Overcoming that hatred won’t be easy, but researchers from Tufts University offer some guidance as to how black and white communicators can create dialogue that can help foster more understanding between the races.

In a study published in the March 2013 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Jennifer Schultz and Keith Maddox found that both the communicator’s race and the message itself (specifically high quality, moderate arguments) have an impact on an audience’s receptivity to claims of racial bias, particularly if the communicator is black.

“Characteristics of the communicator, the message, and the perceiver contribute to the effectiveness of discrimination claims,” write the researchers. “Therefore, it (is) important to determine how to reduce or eliminate potential negative effects arising from each of these sources.”

Through series of experiments, the researchers  “examine[d] how… minorities and their allies (whites who sympathize with minority struggles) (can) maximize positive outcomes when discussing racial bias at either the personal or societal levels.”

The experiments involved student participants from Tufts University who watched a 2-minute video of either a black or white student arguing for the need for culture houses (race-based club houses) on campus as a resource for those who experience racial discrimination. A third control group in both experiments saw neutral messages on dorm life.

In the first experiment, the researchers measured how the communicator’s race and the extremity of their message impacted evaluations of the racial bias claims. For example, an extreme message was, “I think that it is important for blacks to be able to connect with a black community, especially because Tufts is a predominantly white campus. I definitely think that it is unnecessary for white people to have their own house. I mean, everywhere is a white house.” The moderate message was, “I think that it is good that Tufts offers an African American house. I think that it is important for black students to be able to connect with a black community. I don’t know if there is a white house or not.”

In the second experiment, students were assigned to groups that either saw a black or white communicator give either a high-quality or low-quality argument for culture houses. High-quality arguments used examples and evidence to make their point, whereas low-quality arguments were more superficial, with no examples and focused on Tufts’ image as a university.

In the first experiment, participants responded more negatively to extreme messaging rather than moderate messaging. This effect was even more pronounced when the communicator was black. In the second experiment, participants responded more negatively to low-quality arguments. Again, this effect was more pronounced for black communicators.

These findings suggest that in order to reach white audiences on issues of racial discrimination, communicators should use moderate, high-quality arguments that are less intense – that is, less radical in their arguments and backed by evidence and examples. The researchers found that this is particularly important for black communicators, “as they will be more harshly judged [by white audiences] for extreme and low quality of arguments.”

When it comes to communicating issues of racial discrimination to white audiences, both the message and messenger impact the receptiveness of the audience. Black communicators face challenges in sharing their message, but through strategic messaging they can avoid these barriers.

 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Jennifer Schultz and Keith Maddox, Tufts University

Posted: July 22, 2015
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