Even on mute, TV can perpetuate racial bias

Those of us who have been on the receiving end of racial abuse know all too well that words can hurt. But they're also the tip of the iceberg. According to a study of popular US television, we're exposed to the spectre of racial bias on a regular basis, all without a single word being uttered.

When scenes are muted, body language and facial expressions are enough to convey more negative attitudes towards black characters compared to white ones. This bias is so subtle that we're largely unable to consciously identify it, yet so powerful that it can sway our own predispositions. In some ways, racial bias acts as a contagion and television as one of its vectors.

These nonverbal cues could have many origins. Actors could act slightly more negatively towards black colleagues, even if they have no explicit racial biases themselves. Their actions could be written into scripts or they may be directed to behave in a certain way, again without any conscious effort on the part of the writers or directors. Whatever the cause, it's clear that audiences of millions are regularly exposed to very subtle forms of racial bias that can affect their own behaviour. 

Max Weisbuch from Tufts University showed volunteers a series of clips taken from episodes of 11 popular shows, including CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Heroes and House, with an average weekly audience of 9 million Americans. Each show has a racially diverse cast, and Weisbuch focused on an important black character from each show. He chose his clips systematically, taking the first scene where the chosen black character interacted with a white one of roughly equal status within the first, middle and last 5 minute bursts of each episode. Matching for status is important - it obviates the fact that black characters are sometimes less prominent or important to a show. 

Weisbuch cut the audio and the featured character from each clip, leaving behind just the reactions of their conversational partner. Each altered clip was shown to 23 white students who had never seen any of the 11 shows. Without any clues from tone of voice or choice of words, the students judged that responses to unseen white characters were significantly more positive than those to unseen black characters.


Another 17 students who did watch most of the shows felt that the black characters that Weisbuch picked were weren't negatively portrayed - they were seen to be just as attractive, intelligent, sociable and kind as their white counterparts. Another group of 13 students saw transcripts of the muted audio from each clip and, again, saw no difference in the words spoken to characters from each racial group. Nonetheless, stripping out these other elements reveals that biases can still be hidden in non-verbal behaviour.

And that, in turn, affects people's own biases. Weisbuch recruited 53 fresh students and asked them which of the 11 shows they watched. Each student completed an implicit association test (IAT) designed to reveal hidden racial biases. The test asks people to use two keys to categorise words from different groups (e.g. black and white, or good and bad). It works on the basis that category combinations that contradict our own biases should subtly slow our reaction times. Higher scores mean stronger pro-white biases.

Students who watched shows with a stronger non-verbal racial bias to them had higher IAT scores, meaning that their implicit biases were also greater. And once again, this trend has nothing to do with what the characters on the shows actually said, or how attractive they were. Of course, this is just a correlation. It could be that people with stronger personal biases gravitate towards shows that pander to their prejudices, even at an unconscious level. Weisbuch addressed that in his next experiment.

He showed 97 students silent clips with both characters still in. In the "pro-white" clips, white characters elicited more positive responses than black characters, while the opposite was true for the "pro-black" clips. Some of the clips featured the same character in both sets, while others used different characters who were matched in terms of attractiveness, sociability, kindness and intelligence. After watching the clips, the students completed an IAT. As expected, those who saw the pro-white clips had significantly higher IAT scores than those who saw the pro-black clips.

The fact that our own racial bias can be swayed by the physical actions of people we see on TV is even more alarming because we're largely unaware of it. We may know a thing or two about expressions and body language but we still have trouble in identifying patterns of racial bias, encoded in looks or postures. Weisbuch dramatically demonstrated this by asking 22 volunteers to find a "hidden pattern" in the silent clips from the previous experiment. Afterwards, he explicitly told them to say if black characters had been treated better or worse than white ones.  They failed - 55% said that the clips were pro-white, no different from what you'd see if they were just guessing.

In a final experiment, Weisbuch repeated the previous study with pro-white and pro-black clips, but added a third group of control clips where expressions and body language were equally positive to all characters, regardless of race. And this time, instead of an IAT, his recruits did an "affective priming test" where they had to group image as either positive or negative after seeing subliminal images of black, white or Asian faces. Here, the idea is that people who are biased towards a specific race would respond more quickly to the positive images.

Even with these tweaks, the same trends emerged. People who saw the pro-white clips showed stronger white biases in the affective priming test, while those who saw the pro-black clips had stronger black biases. Biases towards Asians, who didn't feature in the clips, went unchanged.

These subtle shifts in bias even translated to more outspoken attitudes. After seeing the silent clips, the recruits said that they liked white characters more if they'd seen the pro-white material, and black characters more of they'd seen the pro-black clips. And if you're thinking at this point that the two effects would balance out, remember from the first study that the majority of the 11 TV shows are, on the whole, slightly pro-white.

All in all, these four studies suggest that racial biases are hidden in the unspoken actions of characters in popular US TV programmes. These biases can affect those of viewing audiences, and they're very hard to consciously pin down. Turned around, they could even help to reduce racial prejudice. In Weisbuch's final study, when white recruits filled in a survey that measured their attitudes towards black people, they showed significantly fewer signs of racial prejudice if they had seen the pro-black clips. 

Bringing this phenomenon to light should hopefully galvanise people in the entertainment industry to give it due consideration. This is especially important because American TV is hardly confined to America. It travels all over the world, picking up audiences far greater than the 9 million quoted in Weisbuch's paper. It's a potent international cultural force and it needs to be careful if it isn't to promote the globalisation of racial bias.

Reference: Science 10.1126/science.1178358

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This site that we have is based on the Racial Attitude Test in Mental Meassurements Yearbook a few years back under my name. MMY's review recommended certain changes and we are doing online testing to help correct their possible racist comments.

Also we do online testing at www.racialattitudesurvey.com .
I appreciate what you are doing.

And the original concept was developed at the Univer of Michigan in 1968 and is commented on Entrepreneur Magazine's Management Smarts May 1997. A reprint of the article is on both sites.
Tom Rundquist, M.A. LPC

"Globalisation of racial bias" is ridiculous.
Racial bias is the reality - it is the baseline. A global baseline.
In european culture, however, racism has been defined as undesirable, and we try to eliminate it.

Elsewhere, racism isn't seen as something to get particularly excited about. In Thailand, for example, (a lovely place with lovely people and a particularly lovely culture) a daily newspaper will happily print an editorial that says (paraphrasing from memory) "no matter how long they have been here, non-Thai will always remain foreigners - even if they have been here for generations they can never be Thai". Personally I respect Thai protectiveness of their ethnic integrity. The Japanese are the same. Of course if similar sentiments appeared in a european-culture newspaper, there would be a frenzied outcry by the hand-wringing brigade.

And, as usual with this kind of study, I notice they have been very careful to avoid any similar test of racial attitudes among non-whites from any non-white culture. I wonder why they don't want that data? Because it would reveal that they are wasting their time and grant monies?

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

All in all, these four studies suggest that racial biases are hidden in the unspoken actions of characters in popular US TV programmes.

It seems strange to me to say that the biases are hidden in the unspoken actions of characters. Wouldn't the biases be the result of unspoken actions by the actors playing those characters? Especially since the dialog, absent any particular actor, is found to be neutral.

It seems like a very interesting follow up would be to have different actors coached is subtly portraying positive or negative queues run through exactly the same scene and dialog with their non-verbal behavior shifted one way or the other and then check the reactions of the audience. If it truly was an aspect of the character, then changing the actor and how they try to portray the character should have no effect.

By Eric Anderson (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

There is just no winning for them poor white folks who are hopelessly racist and just don't realize it yet.

Honestly, I think many racism studies are tenuous at best. I've read about a study, in a textbook, that supposedly proved racism against black sounding names by pairing names like "Lakeisha" with certain words and measuring the reaction times, and pairing names like "James" in the same manner. The longer reaction times to the "black" names was supposed to mean that the viewer was racist towards it. Didn't anyone consider that names like Lakeisha are not as common as ones like James and so take a moment to register? I feel like I need to be wary of studies that want to prove with minute details that racism is still alive and well, just hidden in all the insidious corners of white-people brains. You begin to get stuck in functions of the mind that react directly to encountering differences, regardless of values... and the term racism suddenly has a different meaning.

Or racial bias, which seems to be a new subtler way to say racist (but not too racist).

Ed, I wonder if there was a control group used that didn't watch TV? And I wonder if the racial bias would be the same?

By JefFlyingV (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

So the Black characters garner more negative reaction shots? Not really surprising when they're often written in story lines doing more negative things. One more reason I avoid commercial TV.

My wife, who is hardly an anti-racist, actually quit watching HOUSE in disgust after a particularly negative story arc involving a Black character. She couldn't stand the hypocrisy of the title character doing all sorts of awful things and being an unmitigated dick to everyone yet he apparently could do no wrong, but the Black guy is suddenly a total screwup.

If you look at most mainstream shows, Blacks are show in junior, subordinate roles. It's also typical to have Blacks carry the burden of the 'after-school special' stories--drug addiction, broken relationships.

Remember on "Law & Order" when the guy who played the white cop retired, instead of making the Black cop the senior detective (the actor had been on the show for years) they just brought in another white guy to be the senior cop? Hugely popular show, and all too typical.

Is it any wonder that Tyler Perry's "non-artistic" work is so popular? His stories may be smarmy and cliched, but his characters are human beings.

I am not Black but the majority of people I work with are. I don't need some idiotic racist junk rattling around in my head when I'm working. That would be like shooting myself in both legs repeatedly as far as my career is concerned. Bye-bye, American TV.

As for the poster above who admires the Thai "anti-foreigner" attitude--you would not admire it so much if you knew how the Thai courts treat "foreigners" such as the Burmese women who are illegally trafficked into Thailand as sex slaves. The Thais involved simply pay off the cops, but the Burmese women, who do not speak Thai, and are victims of a cruel scam (often they are lured into the country with the promise of a job such as housecleaning or dishwashing), are beaten with the justice stick since they are unable to advocate for themselves.

Racism in East and Southeast Asia is no different from racism--er, official non-racism--in the former Soviet Union. Never underestimate the power of an authoritarian government to quell ethnic unrest. Most Asian countries have over a dozen indigenous ethnic groups. Even Japan has at least three native ethnic groups, and many more significant populations of foreigners. Anyway, if you look at mitochondrial DNA, it's quite clear that no country is an island. Even populations that "look" homogeneous and do share a lot of genes are quite heterogeneous in ancestry.

By not a gator (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

not a gator,

I don't think your assessment of television is fair. If you have only two black characters (or any other ethnicity) on a television show, what are they supposed to be heroic all the time just because they are black so as not to upset people like you and your wife? What about the white people who are portrayed negatively? How prejudiced is it to assume that race is the reason a person is bad or good?

Of course, I'm not saying racial prejudices don't exist in America. The worst I've encountered was in 1st grade, when I (being of all mixed European blood, white as you can be) had a sweetheart who was African-American. Our classmates were aghast, telling me "black men beat white women." This was in the early 90s out of the mouths of six year olds. Two years later I ran into this boy again, and tried to say hi while he was with a group of black boys. It embarrassed him and he wouldn't talk to me. I didn't know if it was because I was a girl or because I was white... and that really sucks that I'd even question it as a child.

I never see anything so affective on television as I've seen in actual life (except when a show is addressing racism directly). So I suppose I find it less important to monitor the television programming and more important to change what's happening in actual life. TV makes a good gauge for where people are at as far as acceptance goes. If we're at the "subliminal remnants" stage... that's pretty remarkable compared to where we were even just in the 90s.