I’ve written a number of times recently about the discrimination many of us still face in our careers. Suffice to say, the first step in rectifying that situation is to alert people to it. Alas, a recent study highlights how speaking up about the discrimination you face is often much easier said than done and often takes someone of considerable courage and self-esteem to do so.
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The findings reveal the double burden those on the receiving end of discrimination face - first the bigotry itself, and then the onus on them to highlight it.
The research, which was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, explores how Asian-Americans have been subjected to racial discrimination in their work, and the challenges they face in changing the situation.
“The perpetrator is very unlikely to admit to discriminating against someone,” the authors say. “It’s unfortunate, but if targets don’t call attention to discrimination it’s unlikely that anyone else will.”
The paper reveals how stepping forward, and highlighting discrimination is often very difficult and links with previous studies showing how victims of discrimination can often be seen negatively. Co-workers often regarding those who voice their concerns as whingers, despite there often being quite clear evidence of wrongdoing towards them.
They say that while there is still quite considerable overt racism within society, a much more subtle kind is present too.
“Most of the discrimination people face in modern society is ambiguous,” the authors say. “It’s a situation that is important to address because it’s easy for observers to miss. So again, the responsibility of attribution is on the target. And that’s when self-esteem really matters.”
“We found that self-esteem is a personal resource for recognizing this kind of ambiguous prejudice,” they continue. “When prejudice is obvious, people are likely to make an attribution regardless of their level of self-esteem. When it’s less clear, those with higher self-esteem are more likely to make an attribution than those with lower self-esteem.”
About the study
Before the study began, participants were tested to measure their self-esteem levels and then asked to complete a creativity test. Unbeknown to the participants, however, they were all given low scores in the test from their white evaluator, with each test receiving a degree of commentary alongside the grade.
These comments fell into one of three forms:
- a rather bland and generic ’poor quality’ remark
- an obviously prejudiced remark that used very insensitive language as the rationale for the poor grade
- a more subtly prejudiced statement that merely hinted at potential prejudice
The results revealed that those with low self-esteem to begin with were much less likely to speak up about the subtle discrimination they experienced in the test.
“Among Asian cultures, in general, there is a norm of self-criticism. After experiencing failure, it’s desirable to focus on what the individual can do better,” the paper says.
“That might be an adaptive response that motivates self-improvement, but in the context of potentially being discriminated against, it works precisely against the very thing people need to do in order to identify that discrimination has happened and do something about it,” it continues.
Of course, the study focused specifically on Asian-Americans, so the results should be taken purely in that context rather than applied more widely to other groups that face discrimination in their lives. Nevertheless, the authors believe that the basic hypothesis that calling attention to discrimination exerts a cost is something that applies to all groups.
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Have you ever spoken up about discrimination and been viewed negatively for it? Your thoughts and comments below please...