University professors have differing views on the results of a sociological study that found college students use more racially charged speech in private than in public.
At a university, appearing to be politically correct could be a form of self-preservation, said Sarah Hill, an assistant professor of psychology.
Hill said some people are freer with their words in private because it is not socially acceptable to be racist in American society. She said people’s true attitudes may not be “seen on the front stage” because most instances of racism at the university and elsewhere are intended to be private, but become public, like the incident involving Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. The Senate majority leader apologized to President Barack Obama for describing him as “light skinned” and as having no “Negro dialect” in a private conversation that became public.
“People want to be seen as likable and open-minded,” Hill said. “The cultural norm on this campus and on many campuses is to be seen as tolerant. People want to be perceived that way regardless of their true attitudes.”
Joanne Green, associate professor of political science, said she thinks students try to be tolerant of racial differences in class and are willing to learn about other races and cultures.
“What can be seen as insensitive or racist comments are often (the result of) a lack of awareness,” Green said. “If you look at students’ intentions, they are very good; it’s just often ignorance.”
For Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin, the researchers who conducted the study, the experience of waiting tables inspired them to publish research on a phenomenon they called “backstage racism.” The term refers to the instances in which people use racist speech more freely in private conversations than in public settings.
Picca, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton, Ohio, was waiting tables as a Ph.D. candidate working on her dissertation when she began to document instances of front stage and backstage racism in the restaurant.
“White servers would go to tables and be very polite and friendly and retreat to the backstage, the kitchen area, and would make racially disparaging comments,” Picca said.
Picca said adviser and co-author Feagin, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, encouraged her to document experiences with backstage racism as an independent study, but soon the study expanded countrywide with more than 900 students at 28 colleges and universities keeping journals of backstage racism on their campuses.
Based on their research, Picca and Feagin found that whites interacted differently when they were with other whites, compared to when they were with non-whites, Picca said. There were not many differences between journals written by students in the South versus those documented in the North, Picca said.
Macy Pulliam, a freshman entrepreneurial management and sociology major, said people will talk differently in private, regardless of the topic.
“People talk in private about topics they are embarrassed of or afraid.will offend someone,” Pulliam said. “(For example) race, or if they’re talking about someone ‘behind their back.'”
Linda Moore, social work department chair, said student ignorance is the result of a lack of exposure to minorities.
“A lot of people are not comfortable with differences,” Moore said. “They haven’t been exposed to it, so they base their opinions and behaviors on what they heard (rather) than what is true.”
Moore said that by observing campus hangouts such as the Brown-Lupton University Union, it was apparent to her that students gathered and socialized based on what groups they were associated with. At private universities there can be less diversity because of their size and cost, Moore said.
“There are more people here from different ethnic groups and backgrounds than there was 10 to 20 years ago,” Moore said. “But we’re still not diverse because minorities here are from middle- and upper-class families.”
Hill said research has shown that when people act in a way inconsistent with their existing attitude for a long time, they can change their attitude based on their behavior.
“So if people go around and act like they’re not racist, even though they harbor racist attitudes, that can in fact lead to attitude change,” Hill said.