27 June 2020

How Narratives Define Racism - even for the victims of racism

Narrative plays a big part in not only how we look at others but how we look at ourselves. Finding a narrative that is both positive and honest is an important trick. Positive - being kind to ourselves - gives us courage to try new things, which is key for development. Honest gives us feedback about what is and what is not working - which is also key for development. Change your narrative about others and they might become someone different. Change your narrative about yourself and you might become someone different.

Here is a revealing excerpt from Good Economics for Hard Times by the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics winners, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It turns out that the narratives of racism are not just something we apply to others but actually something we apply to ourselves.


What is strange about these self-fulfilling prophecies is just how predictable they are. It is always a traditionally disadvantaged person who ends up as the victim of a biased, but self-fulfilling prediction; you never hear about white males being systematically underestimated in anything except sports. The bias stems from a stereotype rooted in the social context.

A study of African American and white Princeton undergraduates shows how deep this runs. The students, who had no prior experience of golf, were asked to perform a series of golf exercises of increasing difficulty. In a first experiment, half of them were asked to indicate their race in a questionnaire before they played (the standard way to “prime” race; that is, to bring group identity to the top of the mind), and half were not. All students were then presented the golf exercises as a test of “general sports performance.” When race was not primed, white and black students performed very similarly. But once race was made salient, the fact that golf is a “white” sport (this was before Tiger Woods) made the African Americans worsen their performance and the white students improve theirs, creating a large gap between the two.

In a second experiment, researchers did not prime race, but instead the students were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. In both groups, the instructions said the exercises would become increasingly challenging. In one group, the instructions said the test was designed to measure personal factors correlated with natural athletic ability. Natural athletic ability was defined as “one’s natural ability to perform complex tasks that require hand-eye coordination, such as shooting, throwing, or hitting a ball or other moving objects.” In the other, the same test was presented as measuring “sports intelligence,” or “personal factors correlated with the ability to think strategically during an athletic performance.” In the “natural ability” condition, the African Americans did much better than the whites. In the “sports intelligence” condition, the whites did much better than the African Americans. Everyone, including the blacks themselves, had bought into the stereotype of the African American natural athlete and the white natural strategic player. And this was at Princeton…

Banerjee, Abhijit and Duflo, Esther, Good Economics for Hard Times (pp. 116-117). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

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