White liberals tend to present themselves as less competent when speaking to minorities — while conservatives do not, according to a new study from Yale University scheduled to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Most Whites, particularly socio-political liberals, now endorse racial equality. Archival and experimental research reveals a subtle but reliable ironic consequence: White liberals self-present less competence to minorities than to other Whites — that is, they patronize minorities stereotyped as lower status and less competent,” says the study, written by Yale professor Cydney Dupree.
Dupree analyzed the speech patterns of liberal and conservative presidential campaign speeches to pinpoint how often they used words that signified “warmth” and “competence.”
Words that emphasized warmth were things like “supportive” or “compassionate,” while words that emphasized competence were things like “assertive” or “competitive.” Dupree found that Democratic candidates used fewer “competence” words when speaking to primarily minority audiences, and they have been doing so for many years.
“It was really surprising to see that for nearly three decades, Democratic presidential candidates have been engaging in this predicted behavior,” she said in a news release.
There was not a similar pattern with Republicans, though it was harder to find examples of Republicans giving speeches to primarily minority audiences, Dupree said in the release.
But then the researchers took another step. They recruited people to participate in a study where they were told to email a partner using a list of words. Sometimes the email would be about some theoretical task, or it could just be a friendly introduction.
The catch? The person they were emailing either had a stereotypical “white” name like “Emily’ or a stereotypically “black” name like “Lakisha.”
The researchers found that liberals were less likely to use words that signified competence and more likely to use words signifying warmth when speaking with people they thought were black. There was no such connection for conservatives.
So why does this happen?
Dupree says it might be a sign that white liberals “may unwittingly draw on negative stereotypes, dumbing themselves down in a likely well-meaning, “folksy” but ultimately patronizing, attempt to connect” with minorities, according to the study.
“It was kind of an unpleasant surprise to see this subtle but persistent effect,” Dupree said in a news release. “Even if it’s ultimately well-intentioned, it could be seen as patronizing.”
She calls this a “competence downshift” and said people could either be doing it to try to “get along” because they want to seem likeable or, more insidiously, because of stereotypes.
“It’s somewhat counterintuitive,” said Dupree, according to The Washington Post. “The idea that people who are most well-intentioned toward racial minorities, the people actually showing up and wanting to forge these connections, they’re the ones who seem to be drawing on stereotypes to do so.”
Dupree told The Washington Post there were still a lot of questions up in the air: How do people change their speech when talking to other minorities, like Asian-Americans? Do the people pick up on the shift? Is the change in speech pattern actually effective in bringing people closer together?
“My hope is that this work will help include well-intentioned people who see themselves as allies but who may be unwittingly contributing to group divides. There is a broader need to include them in the conversation,” she wrote in the news release.