Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Jeremy Lin and racism? How subtle discrimination affects targets

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

In last week's post, I compared Jeremy Lin to Jackie Robinson, making the point that Lin might open doors for other Asian American athletes in pro sports. One reader, Angela, astutely pointed out that the analogy is problematic:

"There was an actual structure preventing such players from participating, a structure that doesn't exist for Asians or Asian-Americans today... Lin [is] not breaking a barrier."

Angela's point is excellent: the Lin and Robinson cases are not comparable in the sense that Robinson and other African Americans faced blatant, institutional barriers that were specifically set up to maintain Black and White players separate, whereas Lin faced no such barriers in his journey to the Knicks. One of the potential implications of this difference is that Lin's journey might not be as significant because he didn't face the explicit hardships that Robinson had to endure.

Let me frame my commentary in terms of the scandal surrounding the controversial headline "Chink in the Armor" that made its way to the headlines of ESPN and Madison Square Garden.

Although Robinson and Lin were both targets of racist language, the epithets directed at Robinson were direct and unambiguous, whereasin Lin's case, the intent of the writers and broadcasters is much less clear.One can credibly ask whether the writers and sportcasters actually meant to be insulting, or whether the headline creeped through as a result of unconscious bias, lousy editing, or both.

This point goes to one of the fundamental differences between race-based discrimination in the Robinson versus the Lin eras: the prejudice Robinson experienced was blatant, whereas with Lin, the discrimination is much more subtle. Although it may seem that blatant discrimination is much more devastating, consider that even without explicit barriers, the representation of Asian American athletes in professional sports remains, to this day, exceptionally low. It is part of what accounts for the intrigue around Lin.

Subtle discrimination can be just as devastating in part because of the guessing game that targets naturally engage in when faced with subtle, ambiguous discrimination. Did that otherwise sensible person really just say what I think they said? Am I being oversensitive? Did I get cut from the team because of my skills, or because of my appearance? Did I fail this exam because of something about me, or because of my evaluator's attitudes?

This guessing game, this internal dialogue in the face of ambiguous discrimination, is called attributional ambiguity, and it can have a profound negative effect on performance by not letting you concentrate on the task at hand. An experiment out of UC Berkeley (Mendoza-Denton, Shaw Taylor, Chen, and Chang, 2009) in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrates this well. In this study, women signed up for a study that was, purportedly, about their competence for graduate study. The study involved an interview and a test. Each of the women was invited to sit down in the office of a male evaluator; unbeknownst to them, we manipulated the decor of the room to suggest the kind of person this evaluator was. One third of the women walked into a room that strongly suggested their evaluator was chauvinist. The decor included, for example, pictures of girls in bikinis posing next to motorcyles. One third of the women walked into a room that strongly suggested their evaluator was progressive; his office had decorations like pink ribbons in support of breast cancer awareness and a picture of a little girl who might have been his daughter. Finally, one third of the women walked into an office that was ambiguous with respect to his attitudes: it was decorated with a university banner and a bottle of Snapple. By design, no interviewer ever arrived, but all the women were asked to complete a written test of verbal ability anyway.

The results were fascinating, particularly for women who had reported, prior to the study, that they were chronically concerned about being the target of sexism. The test scores of these women suffered in only one of the three rooms-- but which one?

Many people would expect, naturally, the women's scores to be disrupted the most in the office of the chauvinist interviewer. Yet the results showed a different pattern. Women did equally well when they took the test in the egalitarian and the chauvinist office-- it was in the ambiguous office that their performance suffered. Ironically, it seems the women who were placed in the chauvinist office, by knowing who they were up against, were able to steel themselves against the impending negativity, and to prepare themselves psychologically. This was not possible in the ambiguous room, where the concern about whether the evaluator would be sexist led to performace decrements. It's worth pointing out that one doesn't need to be chronically worried about prejudice to suffer the consequences of attributional ambiguity-- all that is needed is an ambiguous event such as receiving less pay than one's male counterpart, or perhaps a headline such as "Chink in the Armor"-- to activate the mind games.

One of the realities of the modern era is that many of the stereotypes that people expressed freely in the past-- of minorities, of women, of any number of groups-- are no longer outwardly expressed. This does not mean they are less real, less important, or less damaging when they do seep out. And part of the damage comes from the very fact that prejudice today can be so much harder to pinpoint with certainty.

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Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today