Examining How Racist Exemplars Shape White Americans’ Perceptions of Racism

Hoffman, Kelly, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Trawalter, Sophie, Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy, University of Virginia

Despite recent improvement of race relations in the U.S., racial disparities and intergroup tensions persist. Part of the problem lies in the divergent perceptions of Black and White Americans regarding racism. Relative to Blacks, Whites perceive less racism overall, and they think of racism primarily in terms of individuals, which can have negative consequences for race relations. Although previous work has explored the effects of thinking of racism in individual terms, no work has examined whom people call to mind when they think of racism. The four studies in this dissertation begin to address this gap by examining the individual racists (exemplars) who come to mind, the attributions people make for these individuals, and how these attributions, in turn, shape general perceptions of racism. Study 1 showed that White Americans spontaneously call to mind a variety of individuals when thinking about racism. Studies 2 and 3 examined the causal influence of close vs. distant exemplars on attributions, demonstrating that thinking of close others led to more charitable attributions and, in turn, these attributions were associated with perceptions that racism is not problematic. Study 4 showed that shifting attributions to be more charitable was associated with decreased perceptions of racism as problematic. Moreover, Studies 3 and 4 address and rule out potential alternative explanations for the relationship between closeness and exemplar attributions and perceptions of racism. Taken together, these findings broaden our understanding of White Americans’ perceptions of racism and suggest a novel, pernicious way by which close others might negatively impact race relations.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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