Ignoring Our Race Problem

Barack Obama’s eloquent plea for a national dialogue on race may go unheeded for a simple psychological reason: The topic makes a whole lot of people uncomfortable, and our favorite way of dealing with anxiety-provoking subjects is to ignore them.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Science, Jennifer A. Richeson of Northwestern University describes a study she conducted with 15 white college students. All the subjects had scored high on a test that indicated they felt the need to appear racially unbiased in order to conform to standards of political correctness. In psychological terms, they were externally rather than internally motivated to treat people in a colorblind way.

They participated in a computer test in which a black face and a white face — both featuring neutral expressions — appeared side-by-side on the screen. By flashing dots on one side of the monitor or the other, researchers determined that the subjects initially focused on the black face but quickly turned away and directed their attention to the white face.

“Think of it as initially turning your attention to something that poses a threat and then causes anxiety, and then ignoring it because you don’t want to deal with it,” Richeson said.

One bit of good news: This pattern was eliminated when the faces were smiling. So, however serious the subject may be, a dialogue on race should perhaps start with a smile.