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Discrimination Is Not Always Hostile


discriminationIn a theoretical review published by American Psychologist, Tony Greenwald and Thomas Pettigrew have offered a new perspective on discrimination. Through examination of available surveys and experiments, Greenwald, a psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) and Pettigrew, from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), concluded that much discrimination is caused more by favoritism than any hostile intention to harm someone who is not favored. Greenwald says that simply by showing favoritism toward an individual, discrimination is produced. Even though there may be no intention to discriminate or dislike toward another individual, they are still disadvantaged by the favoritism.

The source materials used for the review came from scientific research regarding discrimination published over five decades. Greenwald and Pettigrew were surprised by their own findings. The observed discrimination happened far more often in the form of helping a person, not harming another. Despite this, most of the researchers they examined still defined the discrimination as originating from attitudes of negativity and hostility. The favoritism element was rarely noted.

According to Greenwald, the discrepancy makes sense. It is natural to assume that an act of discrimination comes from a place of hostility. Obvious examples are when a white woman rants on Facebook using anti-asian rhetoric or when homophobic individuals show up at a Gay Pride parade and shout anti-gay remarks at the participants. What Greenwald and Pettigrew were interested in were the more subtle, and frequent, actions that create disadvantage.

A good example of discrimination through favoritism is when a manger provides greater opportunities to one employee, because of a personal connection, even though there is another employee with an equal or greater job performance record. Though the manager did not consciously discriminate against the other employee, a disadvantage was created by his inclination to help the employee with whom he shares a connection. This connection is referred to as an “ingroup.”

Ingroups are made up of people who feel comfortable with one another for various reasons. Greenwald explains that there is a shared identity marker amongst people in each other’s ingroups. Obvious characteristics within demographic breakdowns like, age, ethnicity, gender, race and religion, can help initiate an ingroup. But, many ingroups are founded in shared neighborhoods, occupations, schools, sports teams and other commonalities that people have with each other. “Outgroups” are the people with whom there are no shared identity markers.

The two researchers are suggesting that the unequal treatment that derives from doing favors for ingroup members, rather than imposing hurt on outgroup members, is the cause of the majority of the discrimination that goes on in the United States today. Pettigrew is careful to point out that they are not saying that hostility and prejudice are not affiliated to discrimination toward an individual’s outgroup. Only that ingroup favoritism seems to be more fundamental in most cases of discrimination.

However, historically-speaking, social scientists have put much emphasis on hostility derived from prejudice as the basis for discrimination. Greenwald and Pettigrew examined the historical definition of prejudice through the lens of psychology. Because prejudice has, in general, been construed as outgroup hostility and that has been the focus, the subtler nature of discrimination has been overlooked.

Their hope is that this review will help inspire researchers to alter the way in which they study discrimination. Greenwald says that this is important due to the significant implications of the results of that research. Daily life, education, employment law and health care, to name a few, are all impacted by how discrimination is universally defined.

While hostility is not necessarily inherent to discrimination’s definition, it is clear that people can easily discriminate without being hostile to a single person. Greenwald believes that it is important to “understand how discrimination can occur both without hostility and without any intent to discriminate.”

by Stacy Lamy