"People, it seems, are pretty good at piecing together bits of information to form an impression of someone – and minority friends are only a small part of the equation," said University of Queensland doctoral student Michael Thai, the lead author of the paper published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
People do not only often claim minority friendships to appear less prejudiced but they also seem to think it works, past studies have found. But Thai and his University of Queensland colleagues wanted to know whether those people were right.
To better understand how and whether the appearance of having minority friendships protected someone against a charge of prejudice — having "moral credentials" — they set up two experiments.
In the first, participants were presented with a Facebook profile belonging to a white man surrounded either by white friends, white friends and one Asian friend, or white friends and many Asian friends. The profile also included a post from the man that was either clearly anti-Asian — such as "so sick of Asians right now," or "Asians are annoying" — or said nothing of Asians at all.
The second experiment was similar, but lacked visual cues of the white man's friends. Instead, the Facebook posts were simply prefaced by disclaimers — "one of my best friends is Asian, but...", "some of my best friends are Asian, but...", etc.
Participants were then asked to judge the man's racism and how well-intentioned, offensive and upsetting they found his statement.
The 203 white Americans and 254 Asian Americans participants were all recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a service that allows individuals to pay others to complete tasks. (The service, the researchers argue, is a better alternative to the typical sample of students at a researcher's college or university.)
Unsurprisingly, having Asian friends had no effect on the man's perceived racism when his post had nothing to do with race.
But, visual cue or not, his supposed Asian friendships seemed to help cushion the blow of his anti-Asian statement, resulting in lower perceived racism. A similar pattern emerged for how malicious, offensive and upsetting the participants found the statement: Asian and white participants were less taken aback by the prejudiced statement when the man appeared to have Asian friends.
But that didn't completely eliminate the perceived racism. Having those friends just made the white man seem less racist than if he had no Asian friends.
Still, the authors conclude, "our findings suggest that minority friendships can potentially be exploited to soften the backlash that is typically expected from observers when prejudice is expressed."
It isn't clear whether how broadly applicable the results of the study are. In fact, past research has found that a person's gay friends help to ease perceptions of homophobia, but only for straight participants. The opposite could also be true: The effect could be even more severe for groups with whom the (white) majority group has a worse historical track record—black Americans, for example.
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