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UMass professor publishes book on race relations

Linda Tropp, a social psychologist at University of Massachusetts, and Robyn Mallet of Loyola University of Chicago, co-edited a book about positive relations among different ethnic groups published last week on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

The book titled “Moving Beyond Prejudice Reduction: Pathways to Positive Intergroup Relations,” explores new methods to improve interactions and promote empathy between racial minority and majority groups. Traditionally, social scientists have tried to understand why discrimination is prominent between members of different cultural groups and have worked to lessen it. Tropp and Mallet, however, believed research should go beyond simply diminishing intolerance in order to find what motivates people to interact with other races.

“We were trying to address what we saw as a gap in the goal that people usually have when they think about trying to improve racial and ethnic relations,” said Tropp.

While prejudice reduction is important, the authors essentially saw two things missing from prior work. First, they believed peoples’ anxiety over interacting with other races and ethnicities needs to be addressed so it can eventually be overcome. Second, Tropp and Mallet were unsatisfied with simply reducing prejudice and wanted to understand and encourage what stimulates peoples’ interest in other groups.

“When we approach members of different racial or ethnic groups, we get so nervous about what they will think of us and whether the interaction will go well that we pay less attention to learning about the person we’re interacting with,” said Tropp.

Tropp and Mallet initially decided to undertake the editing and organizing of the book when they organized a symposium a couple of years ago. They invited a panel of speakers to discuss this topic and a publisher from the American Psychological Association approached them to suggest they make the topic into a book. The professors then asked other authors to join them in developing the volume and, after a two-year editing process, the book was published.

The volume is divided into four sections: Reconceptualising Intergroup Attitudes, Motivations and Expectations Across Group Boundaries, Closeness and Inclusion in Cross-Group Relationships and Applications to Post-Conflict Conciliation.

The first part explores how people can change the way they measure and think about attitudes between different groups. The second section suggests people sometimes avoid interactions because they expect a negative outcome and awkwardness and offers ways to encourage positive relations. Part three examines how the dynamics of a group change when it is penetrated by a member of a different group. Finally, the fourth section contains insight from scholars from different parts of the world, who were asked to apply these psychological processes in regions that have ethnic, religious, or political conflict. 

Tropp also suggests inclusive norms should be created in order to make everyone feel welcome.

“This is really more at the institutional level,” she said. “It oftentimes depends on policies or statements from authorities or administrators to send the message to everybody in that environment that everybody belongs here.”

Another strategy discussed involves setting an example for the others to follow. For example, observing a friend who successfully interacts with a different racial group influences the viewer to do the same.

Tropp became personally interested in race and ethnic relations because of her background. Growing up in a town that was 80 percent African-American and majoring in both psychology and Spanish introduced her to other cultures.

“I happen to be white, but I think a lot of people took me for South American when I was at college,” she said. “I could see how people would respond differently to me and to other people depending on whether they thought I was white or a person of color. There were differences in what I would perceive to be anxiety. When people thought I was a member of the same group as them, they became more relaxed. When they thought that I was a member of a different group, the interaction would be more formal.”

Tropp has been a professor at UMass for almost five years. She is an award-winning researcher and the director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program on campus. She has also worked on national and state levels to encourage positive race and ethnic relations, such as with the Massachusetts Attorney General to assess racial climates in public schools.

Sahar Ashraf can be reached at sashraf@student.umass.edu.

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