Yale University recently announced the results of a study concluding that white liberals use fewer “competence-related words” when interacting with minorities.
The study conducted by Yale School of Management assistant professor of organizational behavior Cydney Dupree concludes that white liberals are more likely than other white Americans to “downplay” their own intelligence when engaging with racial minorities.
Dupree says that while there is plenty of research pertaining to the behavior of racially biased individuals in diverse settings, “There’s less work that explores how well-intentioned whites try to get along with racial minorities.”
Because of this, Dupree says she set out to observe “strategies for increasing connections between members of different social groups — and how effective these strategies are.”
Dupree and her co-author, Princeton University professor Susan Fiske, analyzed 74 campaign speeches delivered by white presidential candidates over the past 25 years. Speeches analyzed included those from both Democrat and Republican candidates, and about half of them were delivered to minority-heavy audiences.
The researchers compared speeches given to minority audiences with similar speeches delivered to predominately white audiences. These paired speeches were then compared based on two indicators: “competence-related” words about “ability or status” and words relating to what the researchers call “warmth.” Words categorized as “warmth” had to do with “friendliness,” such as words like “compassionate” or “supportive.”
Their work yielded results that Dupree found “surprising.” While neither side’s use of “warmth” words changed based on audience, the study concluded Democratic candidates speaking to minority audiences actually use fewer “competence-related” words than those speaking to white audiences. Republican speeches, however, showed no such significant difference, indicating that conservative candidates are less likely to alter their vocabulary based on the skin color of their audience. (RELATED: White Liberals More Likely To Believe African-Americans Are Discriminated Against Than African-Americans)
“It was really surprising to see that for nearly three decades, Democratic presidential candidates have been engaging in this predicted behavior,” Dupree said.
After the study did not yield the results researchers expected, they constructed a follow-up study to further test their conclusion. This new study involved a series of experiments wherein white participants were assigned hypothetical interactions. Half of the white participants were given a hypothetical situation where they were to send an email to an individual by a stereotypically white name; the other half was told they would be emailing a person with a more stereotypically black name. Yale offers the names “Emily” and “Lakisha” as examples. These participants also underwent a separate assessment of “how liberal they were,” according to Yale.
Participants were then told to use a pre-determined list of words to compose an email to their hypothetical partner. The findings of this second study were consistent with the first: persons considered to be “liberal” were less likely to use words that indicated high competence when they believed they were emailing a black person. For example, they were more likely to chose the word “sad” over the word “melancholy.”
“It was kind of an unpleasant surprise to see this subtle but persistent effect,” Dupree said of the results. “Even if it’s ultimately well-intentioned, it could be seen as patronizing.”