Are Racial Stereotypes NOT Really About Race?

How wealth and environment influence stereotypes

Posted Sep 02, 2016

Picture this: A young White man, standing in front of a beat-up looking house trailer with one broken window patched with a sheet of cardboard.  On the ground around him, there are bits and pieces of trash, including an old crushed water bottle a couple of dented beer cans.  Now imagine a young Black man, standing on the porch of a nicely appointed middle class home in the suburbs, complete with healthy trees, flowers, and a green lawn.  On the stylish lawn table near him is a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and two crystal wine glasses.  In your judgment, which of these young men is more likely to: 1) father children earlier, 2) invest in those children’s education, 3) impulsively get into a fight or steal a car? 

According to a recent series of studies, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stereotypes normally associated with Blacks and Whites are more about ecology than about race.  Given no other information, survey respondents tend to assume that a young Black person is more likely than a White person to embody a “fast” life-style – acting impulsively, having children early, and engaging in opportunistic criminal acts.  But when the researchers -- Keelah Williams, Oliver Sng, and Steven Neuberg – probed more deeply, they discovered that this assumption was linked to another assumption, that the Black person is more likely to live in a “desperate ecology” (an environment in which dangers are relatively plentiful, but opportunities are relatively scarce, and likely to disappear if you don’t take them right away).  Indeed, survey respondents assume the exact same “fast” and impulsive characteristics apply to White people living in desperate ecologies.

When the researchers compared stereotypes about Black people living in hopeful ecologies with White people living in more desperate ecologies (as in the example in the opening paragraph above), they found that everything flipped around: Blacks living in hopeful ecologies were assumed to have the characteristics normally associated with “Whites” whereas Whites living in desperate ecologies were stereotyped with traits normally attributed to “Blacks.” 

Is it environment or wealth?

One possibility is that the ecology effect is about wealth – people from comfortable hopeful middle class neighborhoods have more money; people living in ecologies of desperation are poor.  But when the researchers showed a person living in a rough-looking neighborhood, that person was still regarded as living a “fast” and impulsive lifestyle even when he had a relatively high income.  Conversely, a person living in comfortable hopeful-appearing neighborhood was assumed to be living a “slow” lifestyle even if their income was relatively low.  It seems that its about what the realtors call “neighborhood, neighborhood, neighborhood,” and not about what the economists call “money, money, money.”

How to manage your "affordances"

These findings stem from thinking about behavior in light of what the researchers dub “affordance management” theory.  An affordance is a term borrowed from ecological psychologist James Gibson -- an opportunity or threat provided by the environment.  Presumably, when we try to judge what opportunities or threats another person presents, we take into account that person’s ecology.  According to author Oliver Sng, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan: "What we are proposing here is a new way of thinking about race stereotypes. And it is one that highlights an unexpected potential intervention: change people's beliefs about the environments different races live in."

Keelah Williams, the first author of the paper, had several other responses to the question: What are the implications of these findings for possible interventions?  She suggested three possibilities: “One is sociocultural … we could work to make desperate ecologies more hopeful.”  She notes that this seems like a daunting prospect, and that although Democrats and Republicans would like to lift people out of desperation, they propose very different, and sometimes opposing, mechanisms for accomplishing this.  Another approach would work at the level of the person who holds the stereotypes – either reducing the actual threats they feel from people who come from desperate ecologies, or increasing their empathy for folks who live in desperate circumstances.  Finally, Williams suggests another intervention at the level of the people who come from desperate ecologies –  teach them to manipulate other people’s expectations  --- by sending off cues associated with more hopeful ecologies. 

Whistling Vivaldi

How could  you manipulate other people’s perceptions about where you come from?  A poor white guy from a trailer park could wear a shirt with a confederate flag, and a pair of beat up black jeans, and walk down the street singing “Take This Job and Shove It,” for example, and fuel people’s stereotypes about his desperate background.  Or he could don a pair of eyeglasses, a button down shirt and chinos, and whistle a few lines from Beethoven's 9th Symphony – which would trigger a whole different of stereotypes, and expectations about the potential threats he might or might not pose. 

Indeed, other work coming out of the same lab finds that white people’s stereotypes about Blacks might be addressed with behavioral changes suggested by Brent Staples’ writings.  Staples is an author and editorial writer for the New York Times, who remembered his discomfort as a young Black man walking through a fancy White neighborhood in Chicago.  He described how White couples would huddle together and reach for one another’s hands when they saw him, or would walk to the other side of the street.  His solution was to begin whistling tunes from the Beatles or from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  After that, he said:

The tension drained from people’s faces when they heard me.  A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark. 

(P.S. A few people took issue with this last suggestion, and with the research reported here.  I respond, and provide some responses from Steve Neuberg in the follow-up post: Do racial stereotypes have nothing to do with race?  Part II)

Becca Neel also noted that:

We only measured what strategies Blacks use, not whether Whites’ stereotypes are reversed. This is an important distinction and we don’t really have any evidence that White’s stereotypes can be reversed by behavioral changes. 

And, it’s worth noting that in Staples’ book, after he says (as quoted): “The tension drained from people’s faces when they heard me.  A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark,” he goes on to describe how frustrating it became to engage with this and the injustice of the situation, and that he started to even respond by playing “scatter the pigeons,” in which he deliberately walked toward or through groups of White people and watched them react with clear fear (I’m paraphrasing, it’s been a while since I’ve read the book but this is the gist of what I remember). So the story doesn’t end with Whistling Vivaldi taking care of the problems with racial stereotyping (here, from the target perspective), and when mentioning this anecdote now I try to be faithful to the whole story he shared without cutting it off at Whistling Vivaldi, which doesn’t really reflect the ongoing burden of being seen as dangerous and the frustrations that come with having to choose how to manage that.

Related blogs

The origins of xenophobia: Why can't we all just get along?

Racism and violence: Is the world becoming a nicer place to live?


Neel, R., Neufeld, S. L., & Neuberg, S. L. (2013). Would an obese person whistle Vivaldi? Targets of prejudice self-present to minimize appearance of specific threats. Psychological science, 24(5), 678-687.

Williams, K. E., Sng, O., & Neuberg, S. L. (2016). Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(2), 310-315.

Photo credits:

Urban poverty: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  2008-02-01 20:01 Nikkul 3.