Picture the scene – you sit in a room with two other people, one white and one black, waiting for a psychological test. As the black person leaves to use their mobile phone, they bump the knee of the white person on their way out. While they’re gone, the white person turns to you and says, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that.” How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Angry? Indifferent? And would you want to work with that person later?
This was the scenario that Kerry Kawakami from York University used to try and understand the state of race relations in 21st century America. Kawakami found that people are very bad at predicting their responses to racism. They may claim to shun hypothetical racists or be upset by their actions but when confronted by such people and events in reality, their predictions turn out to be dramatic overestimates of their actual feelings. This discrepancy may help to explain why racism is such a widely condemned but remarkably prevalent part of modern society.
Kawakami recruited 120 volunteers of various races (apart from black), sat each one in a room with two actors – one white, one black – and watched as the white student reacted to having their knee bumped. In some trials, they said nothing; in others, they said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” and in the most extreme cases, they said, “Clumsy nigger.” When the black partner returned, all three were asked to fill in a survey about their current state of mind and the real volunteer was asked to pick one of the other two to help them complete a word task.
Only half of the volunteers – the “experiencer” group – actually sat through these events. The other half – the “forecasters” – were only told about it and asked to put themselves in the shoes of an experiencer. Kawakimi found that their forecasts of their feelings and reactions bore little resemblance to the way the experiencers actually behaved.
Expectedly, forecasters said that they would be very upset by either racist slur. In reality, the experiencers were largely indifferent, and those who heard negative remarks were actually no more distressed than those whose partners hadn’t said anything at all. Likewise, only about 10-20% of the forecasters said that they would choose the white person as their partner over the black one but a much higher 63% of the experiencers actually did so. If anything, they were more likely to pick their white associate if they made a racist slur than if they said nothing.