The Grapevine

Black Lives Matter: You Can Fight Racial Bias With ‘Micro-Positive’ Behavior

Black Lives Matter
A woman protests in New York City after the death of Akai Gurley, who was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer. Photo courtesy of a katz / Shutterstock.com

America has been torn apart by racial events of late, particularly the countless shootings of unarmed African-Americans and the Charleston, S.C. shooting. The “Black Lives Matter” campaign and hashtag appeared in the midst of these events, hoping to instill change in American identity and the way we talk about race.

In a new study, researchers out of the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to see how people could make a difference in reducing racial bias on a daily basis. While social media and blogging to raise awareness can help, the researchers focused only on physical, in-person interactions between whites and blacks.

Writing and tweeting can raise awareness about an issue, but only if you’re aiming at the right people. Real-life events, the new study found, can have a larger impact on changing people’s viewpoints and attitudes.

For the study, researchers tested out four different experiments on how racial bias can be “contagious.” In the experiments, participants observed a video in which white people either exhibited “micro-positive behavior” or negative behavior toward a black American. The researchers ultimately found that participants formed more positive impressions about the black person in videos where white people interacted with positivity toward them. Participants who observed micro-positive behavior (such as smiling, gazing longer, conversing, and standing closer) to a black American were less likely to hold racial stereotypes or bias; they were also more likely to want to be the black person’s friend.

These results “provide evidence for the hypothesis that we can ‘catch’ racial bias from others by merely observing subtle nonverbal cues,” the authors wrote.

Assistant Professor Dana Carney, an author of the study, said in a press release: “Prejudice is often less overt. It manifests often as micro acts of aggression. What is hopeful is that our study also indicates that positive behavior toward different social groups can be contagious.”

So what does this mean? It’s interesting to note that we can all make a difference in our daily lives by simply being nicer to people (who knew?). But there is at least one caveat in the study: It’s inherently racist to assume that if a white person looks favorably on a black person, then this means the black person must be okay to like — almost like a white brand of approval. This is a negative stereotype that shouldn’t be reinforced.

White people should find other ways to be allies and support the Black Lives Matter movement, and the first step is to educate oneself about the history of the black community and the black leaders of today. The second step is to listen to black people and what they have to say; this isn’t about you, it’s about them.

Source: Willard G, Isaac K, Carney D. Some evidence for the nonverbal contagion of racial bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2015.

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