I remember when I first heard Devante Smith-Pelly was at the receiving end of racist taunts at a Chicago Blackhawks game in 2018. I assumed the worst case scenario initially, so when I discovered that the fans were chanting “basketball” at him, I was almost relieved. Obviously, the actions of the Chicago fans were racist and ignorant; however, when looking at the cases of people throwing bananas at Wayne Simmonds or complete harassment and use of the n-word by hockey fans in Quebec, it is easy to dismiss Smith-Pelly’s incident as less severe. But taking a look at two psychology studies, microaggressions are harmful to the human psyche and can have real effects on people.

A Different Lense

In a study done by Jessica Salvatore and J. Nicole Shelton, a closer look is taken on the impact of microagressions, or less obvious instances of racial discrimination. For social functioning, people must be able to understand others intents and motivations. When faced with prejudice there are various coping strategies that differ with race. It is necessary to address this issue through the lens of both minorities and whites. Ethnic minorities may develop psychological immunity to prejudice that lessens obvious negative consequences of perceiving prejudice. Also, the knowledge that one’s group is oppressed and a potential victim of bias and prejudice result in more mental preparedness. The constant awareness that prejudice could occur helps minorities recognize prejudice.

The coping strategies that occur in the face of prejudice cannot be activated unless the person recognizes that there is prejudice present in the situation. So in ambiguous cases where the prejudice may be subtle, the psychological effects may or may not occur. Due to increased interaction with prejudice, minorities are more likely to question the motives of negative behavior and treatment from others more than white people. The inability to confirm the motivations of others as innocuous is a distinct characteristic of stigmatized groups.

The ability to discern prejudice and estimate the probability of discrimination is an important skill to have as a minority regardless of which specific group is targeted. It can signal a potentially dangerous situation and start the necessary coping mechanisms. For these reasons, marginalized groups are motivated to use more cognitive effort to identify prejudice to prepare for all situations.

While minorities often develop immunity and coping mechanisms with prejudice, white people rarely face anti-white prejudice and do not actively think of themselves as potential targets of discrimination. Therefore, white people lack the coping strategies that are present with minorities and in turn, do not experience the cognitive disruption.

The Reality 

In this study, the subjects were faced with two instances of racial prejudice: one blatant and one ambiguously motivated. Then the cognitive impairment was judged using the Stroop color-naming task.

Subjects were told to evaluate recent hiring decisions and were given a job description and resume for four candidates and rated each of them for their hireability to ensure subjects were not biased themselves. Two candidates were competent but not spectacular while Candidate 3 was mediocre and unqualified and Candidate 4 graduated from a prestigious school and had an impressive resume, clearly making Candidate 4 the most qualified of the group. The control case was the selection of the most qualified candidate (Candidate 4). In cases meaning to show subjects an example of prejudice, the human resources officer recommended hiring an unqualified candidate implied to be of his own race (Candidate 3) over a clearly more qualified candidate who seemed to be of a different race (Candidate 4). The ambiguity of the motivations came in to play when showing the officer’s comments. Some were neutral with regard to race like commenting on the major of the candidates while some were more obviously racist, like critiquing the number of minority organizations the candidate cited.

The subjects were then told that the questionnaire involving the hiring decision was not ready and were told to do the Stroop color test instead, in order to not reveal the true intentions of the study. The subjects were told to identify the color of the text as fast as possible. Using reaction time to compare scores on the test, the results between black and white subjects contrasted.

Cognitive Impact

Black subjects were greatly affected by the ambiguously prejudiced hiring choices, while the blatant displays of discrimination hardly differ from the presence of no prejudice. On the other hand, white subjects were cognitively impaired in the presence of blatant discriminations while there’s only a small discrepancy between no prejudice and ambiguous.

The cognitive impact of blatant racism for white people is likely due to the fact that they typically don’t deal with prejudice regularly and while this impact can be noted, the presence of blatant prejudice is less likely in a modern workplace. Subtle microaggressions are more prevalent in today’s world, which is why the impact of ambiguous prejudice is more meaningful. The impaired cognitive function shows that not only is discrimination in a work setting offensive, but it can potentially impair the work done by minorities.

This study looks specifically at cognitive effects in the workplace and it could be argued that it may not be as applicable to athletes. In another study, the impact of the cognitive stress on physical output is measured. The awareness of stereotypes like black people should be playing basketball instead of hockey alone is enough to impact an athlete according to the theory of stereotype threat. By definition, stereotype threat is  “…when a negative stereotype about a group becomes salient as the criterion for evaluating performance, individual group members become concerned that their performance may confirm the validity of the negative stereotype. The increased concern created by the threat imposes an additional psychological burden to the task, which, in turn, reduces an individual’s ability to perform to their potential.”

Language Matters

There has been a debate about who is better between black and white athletes throughout history. In 1971, Martin Kane wrote an article for Sports Illustrated discussing the rising prevalence of black athletes in American sports. Kane acknowledges the environmental factors that play a role in the success of athletes in certain sports, but mainly focuses on the biological differences that lead a certain race to be superior at a sport. By remarking in the “power” that a black person’s body possesses, Kane is implicitly making an argument that black people are not as evolved from the ape ancestors, perpetuating the dehumanization of black people. When white people find success in sports, their intelligence and mental abilities are more likely to be attributed to their triumphs while black athletes are marveled at mainly for their athleticism for which their genes can be credited.

In a study done by Jeff Stone et al, black and white subjects were made aware of both threatening and non-threatening stereotypes before completing a physical task- a game of golf. For black subjects the threatening stereotype was that golf required intelligence and for white subjects, the threatening stereotype was that golf required innate athletic ability. Non-threatening stereotypes, or “positive” stereotypes, had a small impact on performance, making subjects perform slightly better than control groups. But the biggest discrepancy was between the control group and subjects confronted with threatening stereotypes. The pressure of the stereotype threat worsened the athletic performance of subjects. Professional athletes earn their living off of playing sports and it is fair to assume that their own sense of self-worth can be tied to their performance. In the study, subjects that valued athletic performance the highest were “most negatively affected by the threat of confirming a negative stereotype”, or felt an unjustified amount of pressure to disprove an unfounded stereotype.

Continuing to think of hockey as a “white” sport that requires more intelligence and skill than other sports like basketball is not a good marketing strategy – it only further alienates people of color from the game. It’s easy to deny the impact of seemingly meaningless phrases when you look at the atrocities that have occurred in the past, but the power of language cannot be ignored.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Language

  1. This is a powerful blog. The study you cited by Jeff Stone reminds me of the book “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele. It’s remarkable how significantly microaggressions and stereotype threats impact performance. This should be critical concern of every organization that cares about their bottom line.

    1. I’ve got Whistling Vivaldi on my bookshelf and I completely agree! D&I isn’t just a checklist that companies should compete, it is meant to be a shift in pedagogy and a way of life. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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