Bitter Reaction to Study on Black and Asian Women's Tolerance for Racism

5 years ago

[Editor’s Note: Every once in a while, a study comes out that makes you wonder, “What were they thinking?” Contributing Editor Laina Dawes and I are trying to wrap our minds around a recent report involving Black and Asian women, a Confederate, and a pile of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. And no, it’s not a joke. Read on to find out more... --Grace]

Laina: In the study Bitter Reproach or Sweet Revenge: Cultural Differences in Response to Racism, researchers investigated the differences in how Black and Asian American women respond to racism. Respondents were asked to participate in an interaction via online instant messaging, about an interracial dating situation. There were two ways of measuring the responses: How they directly responded to racial comments by a researcher posing as a “White Confederate” that they perceived as racially offensive. The second measurement was based on indirect responses -- how they chose between good- and bad-tasting jelly beans to give the Confederate in reaction to what he was writing.

Colorful Jellybeans, Image Credit: Shutterstock

For the jelly bean test, participants were all less likely to give the good flavors of candy (e.g. cherry, lemon) to the Confederate; they all gave the bad flavors (such as earwax or dirt) instead -- but the exact results were inconclusive. Black women were reported to be more likely to respond directly to the Confederate about what they perceived as racist messages. Based on the four hypotheses used to measure the results, Asian women were more likely to take the passive-aggressive approach in giving the Confederate the bad jellybeans.

But a lot of assumptions in these hypotheses can be construed as problematic. Researchers assumed that Black respondents would be more vocal in their responses and that Asian women would be less vocal. They justified these assumptions by citing "cultural norms," such as the importance in Black communities of social justice, and that Black families are more likely to encourage direct responses.

From an article on Psychcentral, where doctoral student Elizabeth Lee discussed the study:

“Our findings are consistent with Black women’s cultural heritage, which celebrates the past accomplishments of other Black confronters of discrimination, as well as Asian women’s heritage, which advises finding expedient resolutions in the name of peaceful relations,” the researchers write.

“[R]esponding to racism in what seems like a passive or indirect way does not indicate being any less offended by the racism compared to responding behavior that is more direct and verbal.”

Lee believes the study highlights the importance of racial background when making recommendations for how people should handle interpersonal discrimination.

The problem is that the study contained no mention of the divisive stereotypical perceptions that exist about Black and Asian women. Neither was there mention of the perception that Blacks complain too loudly about racial injustices. By proclaiming that Blacks are too sensitive and providing straw-man arguments to deflect the criticism, the researchers attempt to invalidate such claims. The study also attempts to pit other ethno-cultural groups against Blacks -- which if successful, creates a hierarchy as to who is more acceptable and even-tempered and who is not. This has consequences -- in hiring practices, for instance, and in who is seen as more appropriate as a mate.

Grace: On the other hand, when I first read about the report, I cringed at the assumption that Asian women are less direct, passive, and possibly even sneaky -- because of culture. Asian women have long been subject to the stereotype that they are submissive or even worse, devious -- as in the “inscrutable Oriental," a fear-mongering trope that was used to limit Chinese immigration back in the 1800s and which seems to be making a resurgence in political ads, such as Pete Hoekstra’s “Debbie Spend-it-now” TV commercial.

The reaction I saw on Facebook showed that a lot of other Asian American women were equally troubled by this report, especially writers and activists who have dedicated a lot of time and energy to advocating for fair representation of Asian women in popular culture. The way this report is framed seems to reinforce the Geisha-Dragon Lady dichotomy (our version of Madonna-whore) -- Oh, she’ll smile demurely to your face, but watch out! She’ll poison you with earwax-flavored jelly beans just when you least expect it!

Laina: I would argue that while it's not mentioned in the study, the report perpetuates the thought that Black women are prone to violent outbursts when responding to perceived racial discrimination. Take a look at the comments on American Renaissance, a white supremacist website that re-posted a writeup of the study that originally appeared on Madame Noire. These comments seemed to sway to the "model minority" theory -- that because Asians "worked harder in school," they were less likely to respond directly to a racially tinged remark. It's particularly telling to read the first comment on Madame Noire -- there is a justification from the Black commenter (I’m assuming that he/she is Black) which has nothing to do with the actual study. Education does not trump emotion or lived experience.

The researchers made racialized assumptions in the development of the study, which made the end result exactly what they were looking for. The situation the participants were given to respond to, interracial dating, is a touchy and controversial subject matter, rife with racialized and sexualized stereotypes. Given the number of articles already written on these stereotypes, and the comparisons that already exist within both Black and Asian communities, the results of this study are not a surprise at all. Didn’t we learn anything from the whole debacle over Satoshi Kanazawa’s article about black women last year?

The study also cements the prevailing racialized stereotype that Asian women are more passive and feminine than Black women, which is already a tinderbox in the context of interracial dating. After the 2009 OK Cupid statistics were published, Black women were told that we were at the bottom of the barrell in terms of dating preferences.

Grace: The way that different races are pitted against each other and compared in popular culture is really problematic for Asians, too. That whole model minority thing has served as a way for conservatives to convince Asian Americans that they can be accepted by whites -- as long as they work hard, stay quiet, and don’t cause trouble. And since we're talking about the impact of these stereotypes in the world of interracial dating: Asian-born women have been long seen as a pre-feminist alternative to American women, as David Haldane recently wrote in his tell-all essay “My Imported Bride."

Also, as Jen Wang from Disgrasian points out, the makeup of the study participants is problematic, as nearly half of the Asian women surveyed were foreign-born, and may not be used to experiencing -- and reacting to -- racism:

The results of that study sound pretty stereotype-y to me, and one contributing factor could be that of the 34 Asian American female participants -- all undergraduates at a “large public university” -- almost half of them (47%) were born outside of the U.S. Contrast that with the African American participants, of whom only 13.9% were born outside of the U.S. These researchers also conducted a second study published in the same research paper that found “Asian women were more likely than Black women to say they would not respond directly to a racist comment.” In this study, 65.2% of the Asian participants, also undergraduates at a large public university, were born outside of the U.S. as opposed to only 6.3% of the black participants. Can you lump 2nd generation and 1.5 generation Asian American women together in a study like that? 

There’s something about the premise of the study -- and even reports about it in well-respected publications such as the Atlantic -- that smacks of cultural tourism. The findings are written about as just another "news of the weird" item, as if it’s for people to chuckle and shake their heads at how the other half lives. I think a study such as this one could have some benefit to society if it were used to promote discussions about code-switching and point out common perceptions that a direct verbal reaction may be considered too bold and non-verbal, context-based reaction may be construed as passive-aggressive; that’s all assuming that the normative style of communication is a white American- or European-based model. I find this very depressing. I need to find some really bad-tasting jelly beans now.

Laina: As a writer and someone who spends a lot of time online, I believe that we are currently living in one of the most racially divisive times in the 21st century. I do not think that this study has provided anything overtly damaging, but it will also provide any huge new understandings either. When studies like this are publicized, they beg not just provide another example for people to apply their subjectivity and manipulate the results to what they already believe.

What are your thoughts?


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

Pre-order my book, What Are You Doing Here? On

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

More from entertainment

by Ryan Haidet | 34 minutes ago
by Christina Marfice | 2 hours ago
by Christina Marfice | 4 hours ago
by Christina Marfice | 5 hours ago
by Allie Gemmill | 6 hours ago
by Allyson Koerner | 6 hours ago
by Allie Gemmill | 7 hours ago
by Christina Marfice | a day ago
by Christina Marfice | a day ago
by Jessica Hickam | a day ago
by Stephanie Gustafson | 2 days ago