As my colleague Elizabeth Page-Gould notes, cross-race friendships are not very common in the United States (see in particular Figure 1 in that page). Thus, when toasting family and friends this holiday, the likelihood is that many among us won't be thinking about people belonging to groups different from our own.
And yet, if you looked and looked at all of the solutions proposed by scientists over the years to combat prejudice and racism, you'd be hard pressed to find a more effective antidote than intergroup friendship.
The idea of reducing prejudice through intergroup contact goes all the way back to Gordon Allport, whose seminal book The Nature of Prejudice remains one of the most important manuscripts ever written on the topic. For intergroup contact to reduce prejudice, however, Allport maintained that four critical conditions had to be met. These are:
a) the groups must have equal status
b) the groups must have common goals
c) there must be intergroup cooperation
d) the contact must be supported and recognized by law or custom.
Allport's "contact hypothesis," as it has come to be known (that is, the hypothesis that contact reduces prejudice) has withstood the ultimate test-- the test of time-- in that hundreds of studies have now shown the powerful effects of intergroup contact. And research is beginning to demonstrate that intergroup friendship is a particularly effective form of contact, because it builds in the necessary conditions for contact to reduce prejudice. Think about it: true, balanced friendships, by definition, are composed of people who value each other, share the goal of maintaining the friendship, and cooperate in activities that support and strengthen the friendship.
Cross-group friendship is powerful-- so powerful, in fact, that it has even been shown to reduce animosity among Catholics and Protestants in Ireland who have lost loved ones as a result of conflict. So powerful, in fact, that its effects on prejudice are contagious: if you have a friend who has a cross-race friend, and you learn about that friendship, your own level of prejudice is likely to be reduced!
In my own research with Elizabeth Page-Gould, we have found that cross-race friendships reduce stress. Elizabeth and I found that people's levels of cortisol-- a hormone produced by the body in response to stress-- shot up during cross-race interactions in the lab, but that cross-race friendships attenuated these stress responses. We showed this by inducing friendship in our laboratory among perfect strangers... and the results were amazing.
How does cross-race friendships achieve these effects? As Elizabeth demonstrated in her dissertation, when we make cross-race friends, we begin to integrate them into our own self-concept-- or put simply, we see them as part of ourselves. This happens naturally as we grow closer to others-- their joys and sorrows are literally our own, we feel their pain, we feel proud about their achievements. It's part of a natural process called self-expansion.
And it can happen across the racial divide.
If you've been reading this blog, it should come as no surprise that cross-race encounters are difficult and anxiety provoking, in part because we might be the targets of unconscious prejudice, or because we might be reduced to a stereotype. But cross-race friendships give us reason to hope, even in the face of such an uphill battle. No question, starting the conversation is difficult, but the rewards are large.
No better movie to capture this idea than Remember The Titans. Try picking it up this weekend- and raise your glass to an expanded notion of friends and family.