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Crossing Boundaries: How Intergroup Contact Can Reduce Racial Anxiety and Improve Race Relations

Crossing boundaries

This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By Linda R. Tropp, PhD (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Rachel D. Godsil (Seton Hall University School of Law)

Most Americans agree that people of all races and ethnicities deserve equal treatment and respect. Yet constant news reports and personal experiences show us that race and ethnicity continue to affect how people are treated and how they interact with each other. We know that racial prejudice impacts our lives and our communities in a major way. But prejudice alone cannot fully account for all racial dynamics, including cases where people of color may experience differential treatment by Whites.  We must acknowledge the impact of racial anxiety, i.e., the discomfort people feel in anticipation of or during interracial interactions.

The truth is most of us are concerned about how we might be perceived when interacting with others who are different and this can make us feel unsure about how to act. In the context of race, this concern can be particularly acute as people of color worry that they will be the target of racial bias and Whites worry that they will be misunderstood or assumed to be racist. This anxiety often grows from lack of experience with other racial groups, cultural stereotypes or distorted perceptions about what other groups are like. Racial anxiety can translate into behaviors that may seem rooted in bias, for example:

  1. smiling less,

  2. maintaining less eye contact,

  3. using a less friendly verbal tone,

  4. keeping greater physical distance, or even

  5. avoiding interactions with people of other races altogether.

These behaviors can have significant consequences for perpetuating racial inequities – for instance, by leading White teachers to either appear to engage less due to awkward body language or actually engage less with students of color, or White employers to conduct shorter interviews with non-White job applicants, or patients of one race to be less trusting of doctors from another. Moreover, because avoidance and distancing behavior can also be due to racial prejudice, people of another race may interpret these behaviors as stemming from racial prejudice, rather than as a result of anxiety about interacting with other racial groups.

Luckily, racial anxiety can be changed. Extensive psychological research shows that we can reduce racial anxiety when we reach beyond our segregated friendship circles or communities and cultivate meaningful relationships with people of other races. The more we do, the more we can:

  1. alleviate our anxieties about cross-race interactions

  2. develop positive attitudes and empathy toward people of other races, and

  3. gain confidence about navigating cross-race interactions in the future.

Positive experiences with people of other races can also reduce the impact of negative cross-race encounters and make people more resilient when they encounter stressful interactions in the future.

Importantly, the benefits of cross-race contact may not occur immediately – a single brief meeting between strangers or distant acquaintances can provoke anxiety, particularly for those with limited prior interracial experience. People tend to grow more comfortable with each other through repeated interactions across racial lines that grow closer over time. Even among people who show high levels of racial bias, physiological signs of stress can decrease through repeated interracial interactions, which in turn can make future interracial experiences more positive.

The conditions in which people of different races come into contact matter. Reduced racial anxiety and prejudice occur most often when people of different races cooperate as equals and work toward common goals with institutional support that endorses this kind of equal status and cooperative contact.

We can look to cooperative learning strategies and integrated sports teams as examples of how these conditions can facilitate familiarity, mutual respect, and positive changes in interracial attitudes. Yet such optimal conditions cannot always be guaranteed across different contexts. We can use additional strategies such as creating a common sense of identity and increasing the potential for members of different groups to become friends, by establishing norms that promote empathy and interaction between groups and foster respect for group differences.

Still, given how segregated our social circles and communities remain; it may be difficult to achieve sustained interracial contact. Racial anxiety is often a byproduct of racially homogenous environments, which render cross-race interaction less likely and increase the chances that it will be less positive if it does occur. In these cases, indirect forms of contact – such as observing positive cross-race interactions, or knowing that members of your racial group have friends in other racial groups – can reduce anxiety, create positive shifts in attitudes, and promote more positive expectations for future cross-race interactions.

Of course, we must continue to reduce the impact of racial prejudice and bias and address the structural and institutional conditions that perpetuate our country’s legacy of racial discrimination.   While engaged in these efforts, we must also recognize that addressing our racial anxiety is critical to achieving our long-term goals of removing racialized barriers to opportunity, belonging, and inclusion.

We can use intergroup contact strategies to reduce racial anxiety and promote positive interracial relations as an important complement to other anti-discrimination efforts. We can all benefit from moving beyond the confines of our group boundaries into a broader circle of relationships, friendships, and colleagues.

Related Papers:

Godsil, R. D., Tropp, L. R., Goff, P. A., & Powell, J. A.(2014). The Science of Equality, Volume 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care. Perception Institute and Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

Tropp, L. R., & Page-Gould, E. (2014). Contact between groups. In M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, J. F. Dovidio & J. A. Simpson (Eds.),   APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 2: Group Processes (pp. 535-560). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. New York: Psychology Press.

Tropp, L. R., & Mallett, R. (Eds.) (2011). Moving beyond prejudice reduction: Pathways to positive intergroup relations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Author Biographies:

Linda R. Tropp is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received the 2013 Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring Award and the 2003 Allport Intergroup Relations Prize from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, as well as the 2008 Erikson Early Career Award from the International Society of Political Psychology, and the 2000 McKeachie Early Career Award from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Tropp also received the 2012 Distinguished Academic Outreach Award from the University of Massachusetts Amherst for excellence in the application of scientific knowledge to advance the public good. Tropp is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. She has worked with national organizations to present social science evidence in U.S. Supreme Court cases on racial integration, on state and national initiatives to improve interracial relations in schools, and with non-governmental and international organizations to evaluate applied programs designed to reduce racial and ethnic conflict. She is co-author of When Groups Meet: The Dynamics of Intergroup Contact (2011, Psychology Press), editor of the Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict (2012, Oxford University Press), and co-editor of Moving Beyond Prejudice Reduction: Pathways to Positive Intergroup Relations (2011, American Psychological Association) and Improving Intergroup Relations (2008, Wiley-Blackwell).

Rachel D. Godsil is the Eleanor Bontecou Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law and a founding member and Director of Research of the Perception Institute, a consortium of social scientists and advocates focusing on the role of the mind sciences in addressing identify-based obstacles in culture, policy, and institutions.   She is a national implicit bias trainer for the National Association of State Court Judges and has co-authored amicus briefs to the Supreme Court on behalf of Empirical Social Psychologists in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, as well as the National Parent Teacher Association in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District.  She was a Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 2007 and taught at New York University School of Law in 2009. Godsil’s recent publications include Implicit Bias in the Courtroom (UCLA Law Review, 2012, co-authored with Jerry Kang et al.); Implicit Bias in Environmental Decision Making in Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law (Oxford University Press, 2012), and Implicit Bias Insights as Preconditions to Structural Change, co-authored with John Powell.  She is the co-editor of AWAKENING FROM THE DREAM: CIVIL RIGHTS UNDER SIEGE AND THE NEW STRUGGLE FOR EQUAL JUSTICE (Carolina Academic Press, 2005).

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