It takes self-esteem to speak up about bias

Overt racism is still present in society, but a more subtle discrimination exists, as well. "We found that self-esteem is a personal resource for recognizing this kind of ambiguous prejudice," says Wendy Quinton. (Credit: iStockphoto)

It may take higher self-esteem to recognize some types of discrimination, report psychologists.

The findings highlight the double burden facing the victims of discrimination—first bigotry, then the onus of pointing it out.

The new study, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, focuses on Asian-Americans as targets of racial prejudice and discrimination, an understudied group in the scientific literature.

Wendy Quinton and Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo say the power of targets of prejudice uniting to confront discriminatory treatment is visible in historical movements, such as the American Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, action on behalf of legalizing same-sex marriage, and, most recently, the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The perpetrator is very unlikely to admit to discriminating against someone,” says Quinton. “It’s unfortunate, but if targets don’t call attention to discrimination it’s unlikely that anyone else will.”

Self-esteem is a ‘resource’

Quinton says the difficulty of coming forward is compounded by previous research findings showing how people who identify themselves as victims of discrimination can be viewed negatively by others, who often see targets as complainers, even when there is clear and indisputable evidence of unfair treatment.

And though this type of overt racism is still present in society, a more subtle discrimination exists as well.

“Most of the discrimination people face in modern society is ambiguous,” says Seery. “It’s a situation that is important to address because it’s easy for observers to miss. So again, the responsibility of attribution is on the target. And that’s when self-esteem really matters.”

“We found that self-esteem is a personal resource for recognizing this kind of ambiguous prejudice,” adds Quinton. “When prejudice is obvious, people are likely to make an attribution regardless of their level of self-esteem. When it’s less clear, those with higher self-esteem are more likely to make an attribution than those with lower self-esteem.”

Low threshold for prejudice

Participants for the study were pre-tested for self-esteem and later evaluated for what was ostensibly presented as a creativity test. All participants were debriefed afterwards and asked for permission to use their data.

Everyone was intentionally given low creativity scores from a white evaluator whose comments fell into one of three categories: a non-specific “poor quality” with no specter of prejudice; a blatantly prejudiced response that explicitly used insensitive language as the reason for poor quality; and a response that was less clear, only hinting at prejudice.

Those participants with high self-esteem had a lower threshold for acknowledging the veiled suggestions of discrimination, such that the difference in self-esteem emerged only when prejudicial cues were ambiguous.


“Among Asian cultures in general, there is a norm of self-criticism. After experiencing failure, it’s desirable to focus on what the individual can do better,” says Seery.

“That might be an adaptive response that motivates self-improvement, but in the context of potentially being discriminated against, it works precisely against the very thing people need to do in order to identify that discrimination has happened and do something about it.”

Though the results of this study can only be interpreted in terms of Asian-Americans and looked at a specific event rather than general perceptions of discrimination in daily life, Quinton says the basic idea that if you don’t call attention to discrimination it is never going to be addressed is something that remains valid and works for all groups.

“Attributions must come first,” she says.

Source: University at Buffalo