Racial stereotypes are deeply ingrained into American society, a wound over hundreds of years in history that time has yet to heal. Every non-white person is constantly reminded of a time in history when their people were discriminated against. At one point, African Americans were enslaved and treated as someone else’s property. Native Americans were forced out of their homelands and killed in large numbers. Chinese Americans were once considered aliens ineligible for any citizen’s rights by dint of their birth. Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where many of them did not survive. Mexican Americans and Latinos were once used as migrant labour, regarded to be beneath the standard of human beings. Even though every citizen is now free, it is not easy to forget the horrors one’s people faced, nor is it difficult to automatically associate other races with old mindsets and perceptions.
In a 1947 study by Herb and Mimi Clark, young black children were given two dolls, one white and the other black. The children were then asked which doll they preferred to play with. Most children answered that they preferred the white doll simply because it had lighter skin, and associated the black doll as uglier, dirtier and less desirable than the white doll. This study drew such impact that it was used by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision to desegregate schools in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Ed.
Some 60 years later, Kiri Davis conducted a similar study to see if there has been any shift in children’s attitudes since then. She presented 21 young black children with two dolls, identical in every aspect save for their skin colour. 15 of the 21 children replied that they preferred to play with the white doll. When asked which doll was the “nice doll”, almost all children answered that the white doll was nice, because it was white – even those who had said that they preferred to play with the black doll. As expected, when asked which doll “looks bad”, the children answered that the black doll was bad because it was black. Davis then asked each child to give her a doll that “looks like” them. A video recording of the study shows one particular young child looking first at the white doll, then reluctantly pushing the black doll towards the camera.
From these studies, it is perhaps obvious that people who face negative racial stereotypes are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and consciousness. Even at such an early age, black children already know that light skin and straight hair are favoured over their own features. The media often talks about the difficulties young girls face growing up when it comes to meeting beauty ideals, but the struggle is compounded even more for non-white girls who are taught that their natural skin colour, eye colour, hair type or facial shape can never match that of a white girl’s in beauty.
Undoubtedly, thinking that one received the short end of the stick by being born in a minority race can cause severe self-esteem issues. Although the United States federal laws champion equality, people’s individual beliefs are much harder to shake. People of colour see injustice happen to others of their race on a regular basis. Each day, they are reminded that white privilege exists and that they have to jump through extra hoops that a white person can simply waltz over. From all angles, the outlook may appear bleak.
However, it has been suggested that this phenomenon can also work in reverse. When members of a minority race know that they may be subject to discrimination even if they perform as well as their white counterparts, they may consequently be less affected when they receive negative feedback. While white people have only themselves to blame for poor performance, people in a minority group could shift the blame to racial discrimination. For instance, if a person of colour receives criticism on their work, they may think that the other party is simply being racist, and thus not take the criticism to heart. On the other hand, if a white person receives similar criticism, they cannot assume it was racism in the same way that a person of colour can. This could result in the white person having lower self-esteem since they can only take the criticism as a reflection on themselves.
One experiment was conducted to observe this fact. Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, and Major (1991) gathered African Americans to participate in a study that was purportedly on friendship development. Each person was invited to sit in one of two rooms separated by a one-way mirror. They were told that another study participant, who was assumed to be white, was sitting in the other room. For some participants, the one-way mirror was covered and they were told that the other person could not see them. The rest of the participants had the one-way mirror exposed and were told that the other person could see them. In either case, the participants were given a questionnaire to fill in and were told that the participant in the other room would look at their responses and rate how much they wanted to meet them in person.
In reality, nobody was sitting in the other room. The researchers told each participant that the person in the other room would either really want to meet them, or not want to meet them at all. They observed how each person’s self-esteem changed after learning that the “other person” was not interested in meeting them.
For the participants that believed the other person could see them and therefore knew their race, their self-esteem was not at all affected. On the other hand, the participants who believed the other person could not see them, thus being blind to their race, experienced a dramatic drop in self-esteem. This suggests that minority folk do subconsciously keep in mind that they may be subject to racial stereotypes. As a form of self-protection, they may choose to associate any negative feedback with the fact that the other party is simply being racist, preventing their self-esteem from being negatively affected. If their race is no longer a part of the equation, only then do they take such criticism to heart.
This does create a problem with a certain group of minority folk. Ignoring such feedback works well if there is nothing of worth in the comment. However, if a piece of negative feedback is sincere and constructive, these people may be missing out on an opportunity to improve. Yet one cannot simply tell them to remove this shield and open themselves to a barrage of criticism. It takes an exceptional level of discernment to be able to distinguish the true feedback among a sea of rotten apples. Unfortunately, minority folk are often left in doubt about whether someone truly meant to give them constructive feedback, or if they were just being racist.
On the whole, being shoved into a racial stereotype has done both good and bad for one’s self-esteem. We may celebrate equality on the surface, but as long as people are acutely aware of skin colour, these nuances will probably always tug at the backs of our minds.