Penalties for a Strong Racial Identity

Psychologists will sometimes talk about identities we hold. I think of these as parts of our lives that we express or maintain. One way of thinking of your identity might be your Twitter bio, which will sometimes list the 3-4 things important to you and that you want others to know. For example, mine reads: "Partner, dad, diversity scholar, cyclist, Episcopalian, and change advocate." These are all different identities, and at different times, one might be at the forefront of my mind while others are not. 

A lot of research has focused on how people express their identity and how doing so affects their  attitudes and decisions. Strong sports fans might be more willing to purchase licensed merchandise, as one example. People who identify as a cyclist might talk about cycling, spend too much money on cycling stuff, and even watch it on TV (yes, I do all of these, to the chagrin of those around me). 

More recently, researchers have considered how people interpret others' identities and how that affects their attitudes and behaviors toward those individuals. For example, I might think person A strongly identifies with her race or sexual orientation, and as a result, I might interact with her differently than I would with person B, who I do not believe maintains such strong identities. This can affect things like helping behavior, evaluations, and even opportunities afforded to the target person. 

A former student of mine and I recently conducted multiple studies examining this within the athletics setting.* We focused on race and how Whites evaluated African Americans. The scenario involved African Americans applying for administrative positions. We were able to manipulate the presumed racial identity of the job applicant through the resume. People who supposedly strongly identified with their race were involved in organizations and activities that might signal as much (e.g., volunteer for President Obama's campaign, involvement in an organization called Black Coaches and Administrators, member of an historically Black fraternity). For the job applicants who presumably did not strongly identify with their race,  they were involved in different activities (e.g., Intercollegiate Athletics Coaches Association, McCain campaign, and so on). 

We found the following: 

  1. These signals presented on the resumes were enough to influence Whites' interpretations of the African Americans' racial identity. 
  2. Whites rated strongly identified racial minority job applicants more negatively than their weakly identified counterparts. 
  3. This relationship was influenced by a personality characteristic of the rater called social dominance orientation. People with high social dominance orientations generally support hierarchy and status differences among groups, and are unlikely to challenge the status quo. For people with a high social dominance orientation, strongly identified racial minorities were rated poorly, but the opposite occurred for people with a low social dominance orientation. 

Overall, our findings show that not all racial minority job applicants are viewed the same. When the applicants are thought to strongly identify with their race, they are penalized for doing so. This might be because Whites think strongly identified racial minorities will reject the status quo and question inequalities. This might be threatening to Whites, particularly those who support such hierarchies (e.g., those with high social dominance orientations).

Given these findings, we suggested that these biases and prejudices are likely not intentionally expressed, so job raters should be trained. The training might include a discussion of awareness, as well as steps to reduce the biases.  One such possibility includes making the resumes "blind" by removing the applicant's name and other information that might tip off the rater. Another option is to encourage people to question the status quo and status legitimizing norms. As these are likely at the root of the problem, doing so might help in reducing the bias toward strongly identified racial minorities. There is certainly much work to be done. 


Steward, A. D., & Cunningham, G. B. (2015). Racial identity and its impact on job applicants. Journal of Sport Management, 29, 245-256.