What's Aversive Racism and How Can I Avoid Enabling It?

Did you know that aversive racism is a form of contemporary racism? In fact, it refers to someone who, subconsciously, holds negative attitudes about people from certain races. Read on to learn more.
What's Aversive Racism and How Can I Avoid Enabling It?

Last update: 04 June, 2021

Aversive racism is a form of contemporary racism. In contrast to the traditional form, it operates unconsciously in subtle and indirect ways. Aversive racists regard themselves as non-prejudiced. However, at the same time, they harbor negative feelings and beliefs about members of minority groups. Experts first hypothesized the term to characterize the attitudes of well-educated and liberal whites in America, toward blacks. 

But the basic principles apply to the attitudes of members of dominant groups toward minorities. In other words, groups in other countries with strong contemporary egalitarian values. Yet, discriminatory histories or policies. Despite its subtle expression, aversive racism resulted in significant and pernicious consequences, in many ways paralleling the effects of traditional, overt racism. 

For example, in the restriction of economic opportunity. Did the Black Lives Matter movement utterly inspire you? If so, you want to be a better ally to BIPOC. You’re conscious of the fact that, as a non-black or indigenous person, we live and profit off a society built on systemic racism against Indigenous Americans. You marched, donated, and signed petitions. 

Most importantly, you’re committed to the betterment of Black and Indigenous people’s lives. However, you might not be aware that you might still be racist. Well, aversively racist. But what exactly is aversive racism? How do I recognize it and prevent myself from continuing to enable it?

The definition of aversive racism

Firstly, philosophers and Yale professors Dovidio and Gaertner also defined the term in their brilliant work Aversive Racism. It’s a form of contemporary racism referring to someone who, despite being quite vocal against overt forms of racism, subconsciously holds negative attitudes. For instance, about people from certain races, ethnicities, or minority communities.

People who often display aversive racism are the kinds of people who claim they’re against racism. But they could also discourage or delegitimize BIPOC voices against prejudice. Plus, consider their actions “too loud” or “aggressive”. For example, they may believe stereotypical characteristics about a group of people without realizing it.

Secondly, according to a video by educational YouTuber Frank LoSchiavo, there are many forms of aversive racists. For instance, someone claiming they’re against racism but admitting they’re uncomfortable with the idea of their child marrying a black person. Another example is of a teacher subconsciously skewing punishment to one student over another, simply because the former has a more stereotypically black name. Even someone making a post on social media denouncing xenophobia towards Asian people but subconsciously thinking that a Chinese restaurant is “dirty”.

Essentially, someone who’s an aversive racist may have strong opinions about fairness, justice, and equality for all but may ultimately holds unconscious biases and negative attitudes about people from certain races or ethnicities.

How it differs from other types of racism

Firstly, unlike other types of racism, aversive racists often upheld people who don’t hold strong racist beliefs and those who openly disagree with them. Therefore, aversive racists don’t discriminate in situations with strong social norms as it makes their racial bias obvious. Not only to others but also for themselves. In other words, someone exhibiting aversive racism expresses their bias in subtle and hard-to-detect ways. 

But they often justify or rationalize negative responses on the basis of factors other than race. Most importantly, they’re very likely to be highly defensive if someone calls them out for their racial bias, other than overt racists. Above all, they don’t recognize that they have those views. Likewise, Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, discussed it in a genius speech at Germany’s ZEIT campus. She said that aversive racism “Is the classic racism of a white progressive”.

It originated from white academics in the United States after the Black Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Believe it or not, they disagreed with ideas of segregation and racism against black Americans. But still harbored stereotypical language about African Americans.

Additionally, aversive racism is unlike overt racism in that it’s more subtle and hard to detect. However, the consequences of it can parallel the effects of traditional racism. This may include but isn’t limited to, unfair punishment. For instance, restricting someone from an economic opportunity or education. Plus, giving someone an unfair punishment or judgment because they have an ethnically black name.

How to recognize this type of racism

It’s hard to recognize aversive racism because of how subtle and deeply rooted in society it is. Likewise, due to our racial bias and conditioning is. Sadly, it’s easier to recognize others’ racial conditioning and examples of aversive racists over your own. Therefore, educating and informing yourself is a good start. For instance, you can follow BIPOC voices on Instagram or other social media platforms. 

You can also follow important organizations. Listening to BIPOC voices helps you consciously recognize and confront your own negative attitudes. For example, about a community and changing your views. Secondly, according to Dovidio and Gaertner, you should consider the way you use language. Specifically in regards to people from minority groups or ethnicities.

Most importantly, how you respond to someone addressing your own aversive racism. As DiAngelo said, “Aversively racist people are very likely to be defensive if others call them out”. So try to truly listen to what people are saying and admit that you hold some form of racial bias. You may not realize you have that view about a group of people. But when it’s played back to you, it’s easy to recognize it and address it.

Subtle bias

Firstly, the aversive racism framework also identifies when discrimination against Blacks and other minority groups takes place. Secondly, when it doesn’t take place. In other words, aversive racists consciously endorse egalitarian values. Therefore, they don’t discriminate in situations with strong social norms. For example, where they would make discrimination obvious to others and to themselves. 

In these contexts, aversive racists are especially motivated to avoid feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that could be associated with racist intent. However, aversive racists also possess unconscious negative feelings and beliefs. They typically express these feelings in subtle, and indirect ways. Likewise, in easily rationalized ways. Aversive racists discriminate in situations in which normative structure is weak.

Most importantly, when they justify or rationalize negative responses on the basis of factors other than race. Under these circumstances, aversive racists engage in behaviors that ultimately harm Blacks. But in ways that perpetuate their non-prejudiced self-image. Additionally, this type of racism often involves more positive reactions to Whites than to Blacks. Ultimately reflecting a pro-ingroup rather than an anti-outgroup orientation. Therefore, avoiding the stigma of overt bigotry and protecting a non-prejudiced self-image.

How to actively prevent enabling it

There are many ways to prevent enabling aversive racists. Firstly, the best thing you can do to actively prevent yourself from enabling it is to recognize the possibility. In other words, that you’re likely to withhold racial biases. Likewise, racial attitudes about groups of people without realizing it. We live in a society that profits off systemic racism against Indigenous Americans. 

Even if we’re people of color ourselves, we’re all on some level complicit in this unjust system. Therefore, we must work to be anti-racist. From there, you should examine something else. For example, whether you’re actively enabling aversive racism within your own friend group. Secondly, confront yourself and your friends and family. 

Ask them why they don’t have any BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) friends. Lastly, consider how that may influence your racial conditioning and attitudes towards that community. Plus, how your group may use certain language to describe them. In other words, learn to hold yourself and your friends accountable. Not only for use but also for enabling racially biased language.

What should I do if I experience it?

Firstly, if you’re a BIPOC, know that it’s not your responsibility to educate someone on their racial bias, especially if you don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so. Assess the situation and the people around you before you do. Make sure that you have a supportive network around you if you experience an act of aversive racism. But feel comfortable enough to confront it.

Simply tell them that what they’ve said is due to their racial bias. Believe it or not, aversive racists are often completely unaware that they share a negative attitude. For instance, about a group of people. But if they refuse to acknowledge their own racial conditioning and disagree, know that it’s not on you to change them. It’s perfectly normal to remove them from your life if they refuse. 

To try to change their ways, while ignoring you telling them that what they’re saying is racist. To sum it up, they obviously express this type of racism in indirect and easily rationalized ways. However, it operates to systematically restrict opportunities for Blacks, and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups. 

Besides, it also contributes to miscommunication between groups and fosters a climate of interracial distrust. Understanding the nature of aversive racism can help contribute to policies that inhibit its effects. For instance, by focusing responsibility on decision-makers. Lastly, by helping identify new techniques for eliminating unconscious bias.

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