Summary: This experimental study reveals how people avoid mentioning race and how other people perceive this avoidance. Using the board game Guess Who? as a model, Dr. Michael Norton set up pairs of volunteers each with an array of faces (see image). One participant selects a face, and their partner has to ask yes-or-no questions about the person to see how quickly they can guess who the person is. While half of the faces in the study were white and half were black (thus making a question about race very pertinent), people often avoided asking about race. In fact, only 57% of people used the word "black" or "African-American" during the game when playing with white partners; only 21% did so when playing with a black partner. Norton theorizes that whites avoided using the racial terms to avoid appearing like they cared about race or were racist. A paradoxical finding is that, when a participant did not ask about race, their partner perceived them to be more biased. Norton also found an effect of age. Children aged 7-8 were more likely to ask about race, but children aged 9-10 asked about race much less; in other words, they had already been socialized to be color-blind (i.e. an ideology that believes race to no longer be important in shaping social outcomes and which encourages people to ignore race and racial difference). When dots were introduced to the game, "players did not hesitate to ask about black dots, suggesting that the effect shown in previous games was about race, not color." In other words, it is the social dynamics surrounding race that influenced if participants referenced color in the game. As an Associate Professor of Business Administration, Norton is interested in how this applies to the workplace; he notes that "like players in the game, workers try to avoid talking about race" and therefore it "ends up impeding communication" (this finding would interest organizational and industrial sociologists as well). From a macro sociological perspective, there are further implications related to power and inequality. As Bonilla-Silva (2013) argues in Racism Without Racists, by ignoring racial difference--or by being colorblind--we help perpetuate and reinforce the system of white privilege. These micro-interactions ultimately help shape macro structures and inequalities. The study is also a great illustration of experimental methods used in sociology.
Submitted By: Paul Dean