The space between us: Stereotype threat and distance in interracial contexts

Four experiments investigated how stereotype threat affects physical proximity during intergroup interactions. It was hypothesized that White individuals' fear of confirming the stereotype that Whites are racist would produce physical distancing during interracial interactions even in the absence of interracial animosity. In Experiment 1, White male undergraduates were told they would have a conversation with two other people. The race of these supposed conversation partners (depicted in photographs) was varied so that they were both either White or Black. In addition, the supposed conversation topic was manipulated to be about racial profiling (stereotype threat for Whites) or about love and relationships (control). After the manipulation of conversation topic, students completed three measures designed to assess the strength of their White racial identity, their strength of their stereotype of Whites as racist, and their general social anxiety. Students were then led to a room containing three chairs and were asked to arrange them so that they could have a "comfortable conversation" with their partners, and the distance between chairs served as the primary measure in the study (even though no conversation actually occurred). Results showed that chairs were placed furthest apart in the condition in which White students thought they were going to discuss racial profiling with Black students. The strength of the stereotype that Whites are racist also uniquely predicted physical distancing. In Experiment 2, White male students were randomly assigned to supposedly discuss racial profiling with White and Black partners (as in Experiment 1) or were told that they would have to read a pro-racial profiling essay to their interaction partners and to argue a pro-profiling position. However, they were also told that the interaction partners had been made aware that their advocated position was assigned and not chosen, reducing the threat posed by presenting a racially charged argument. Results showed that students intended to sit further from the Black partners when they expected to discuss profiling but sat closer with White compared with Black partners when they had been assigned to advocate in favor of profiling. These results demonstrate that when the conversation was presumably uninformative about students' true attitudes (when all discussants knew the position was assigned), the topic was not threatening and physical distancing did not occur. Interethnic anxiety and stereotype strength of White racism both moderated physical distancing with Black partners, but explicit and implicit racial attitudes (measured earlier) did not. In Experiment 3, students completed a procedure similar to Experiment 2, but also read essays to encouraging either learning goals to induce an incremental orientation or performance goals to induce an entity orientation (Dweck, 1999). Physical distancing effects were eliminated when students had been encouraged to embrace an incremental view. Experiment 4 demonstrated similar effects with just one Black partner and also showed that individuals have conscious access to feelings of threat that predicted their behavior. These studies demonstrate behavioral consequences for Whites anxious about being seen as racist, but also show the moderation of these effects when individuals embrace an incremental view of ability.

Goff, P. A., Steele, C. M., & Davies, P. G. (2008). The space between us: Stereotype threat and distance in interracial contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 91-107.

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