Respect and the white liberal

How people present their own competence may depend on who they're talking to.

We all know good intentions can backfire. A Yale professor has discovered a troubling example: white liberals—who tend to want to get along with people of color—may act in patronizing ways.

This phenomenon, called a “competence downshift,” might arise because white liberals are aware of stereotypes that hold racial minorities to be less competent, as well as from a liberal’s well-meaning desire to meet people of other races “on their level.”

Racial stereotypes are simply in the air, says lead author Cydney Dupree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the School of Management. “Even if you don’t necessarily endorse them,” she adds, “they may influence your behavior in ways that you don’t even realize or understand.”

In several experiments, her research team examined whites’ language aimed at black listeners. They also studied decades’ worth of speeches by presidential candidates. In the speeches, Democrats used significantly fewer words relating to power and agency when speaking to racial minorities than to white audiences. And in the experiments, white liberals addressing black participants were likelier than conservatives to dial back their self-descriptions and vocabulary—presenting themselves as less competent and using, for example, the word “happy” instead of “euphoric.” (Results appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.) White conservatives may have the same stereotypes but be less explicitly concerned with getting along; they were less likely to shift their verbal responses.

Dupree is currently exploring the implications of the competence downshift. “The strategies of white people who may consider themselves allies” of people of color, she notes, “may not be the most effective.”

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