CHICAGO Most white people say they would react strongly to racism, but don't do anything when they actually witness prejudice, Canadian and U.S. researchers said on Thursday.
They said white college students who heard someone make racist remarks in a study failed to confront that person, and this may be part of what perpetuates racism.
"People do not think of themselves as prejudiced, and they predict that they would be very upset by a racist act and would take action," said Kerry Kawakami, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, whose study appears in the journal Science.
"However, we found that their responses are much more muted than they expect when they are actually faced with an overtly racist comment," Kawakami said in a statement.
For the study, the researchers evaluated 120 white students in Canada who were exposed to racism while waiting for what they thought was the real experiment to begin.
A white student posing as a study participant makes a racist comment about a black participant when he briefly leaves the room. The remarks ranges from moderate to extreme racial slurs. When the black student returns, the actual participants are asked to choose partners for a subsequent exercise.
They found 63 percent of study participants chose the person who made the racist comment as a partner.
"We were all surprised at the discrepancy between what people thought they would do and what people actually did when they were put in that situation," John Dovidio of Yale University in Connecticut, who also worked on the study, said in a telephone interview.
"They didn't shun the person who made an obvious racist remark, and in fact they showed a slight tendency at wanting to work with this person," he said.
Those who actually experienced the encounter were less distressed than those who read about or watched a video of the encounter. The latter were much more likely to say they would not work with such a person.
"Some of this may be due to the situation. We don't have a lot of practice about how to respond," Dovidio said.
Ironically, he said, many other studies have found people who are confronted after making racial comments are far less likely to repeat the behavior.
"By not doing anything you are actually contributing to a society that will be racist in the future," he said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)