Walking around the Sam Houston State University campus at night, you turn and see three guys beating up a man of a different ethnicity and yelling racial slurs at them. You have two nonviolent options. Report it or walk away and do nothing.
A study conducted by the Houstonian shows that 22 percent of respondents said they have often witnessed discrimination on campus, but only 2.2 percent said they actually reported it.
Jorge Varela, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University, said there are several reasons why people might not report discrimination.
“There are a few things to consider when it comes to racism and discrimination, especially racism,” Varela said. “And that is that contemporary racism doesn’t always manifest as overt acts.”
Varela said that in general, you don’t see people engaging in outright racism or discrimination of any sort.
“Modern racism as it’s referred too, [is] more subtle now than it used to be,” Verela said. “What that means is that, someone might see something happening and may have some doubts. ‘Well is it actually racism?'”
Howard Henderson, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, said that it all depends on the person seeing it because discrimination is a matter of perception. Henderson said it is a three-pronged question that a witness has to ask.
“The questions are: what was the intent of the individual who conducted the act, how did the individual perceive the act, and of those people who saw it did they perceive it either way?” Henderson said.
If someone has not dealt with discrimination before and does not know the person’s intention, it is hard to determine if it is discrimination or not, according to Henderson.
There is also the idea of cognitive dissonance, which is the idea that if people act in ways that are contrary to our belief, they have this weird discomfort, according to Varela.
“Let’s say the witness doesn’t report the discrimination. The person may change the way they believe and say ‘Well what he did wasn’t so bad, he doesn’t look like a bad guy.'” Varela said.
Varela said people alter their beliefs.
“That kind of justifies what you did, and you’re okay with it,” Varela said.
Henderson agrees with Varela, saying that cognitive dissonance is something that is important in this situation.
“In reality, we see it and we may not know what to do about it,” Henderson said.
Another reason people may not report discrimination is concern for their own safety, according to Varela.
“People could see it and say to themselves, ‘This guy could be a bad dude that goes around talking to African Americans in this derogatory way and is willing to do this in public. What is he willing to do to me? What are the repercussions for me?'” Varela said.
Then there is diffusion of responsibility or the bystander affect. This happens when more than one person witnesses the discrimination.
“We know that the more people that are present the less likely anyone is to act,” Varela said. “For example let’s say you see two guys arguing somewhere and one guy uses a racial slur. There is group of people that are around and maybe hear it. You look over to see what is happening and you notice a few other people are wondering what is happening. The responsibility defuses.”
A study done by Samuel Gaertner of the University of Delaware and John F. Dovidio of the University of Connecticut proves this point. White and black participants were set up to witness discrimination. Half were led to believe they were the only witness, while others were led to believe they were not the only witnesses.
“When White participants believed that they were the only witness, they helped both white and black victims very frequently (85 percent of the time) and equivalently,” the study said. “In contrast, when they thought there were other witnesses and they could rationalize a decision not to help on the basis of some factor other than race, they helped black victims only half as often as white victims (37.5 percent vs.75 percent).”
Varela is not surprised to hear that this is happening at SHSU.
“It wouldn’t surprise me on any campus or in any other place,” Varela said. “Time and time again, we see examples of things like racism and other forms of discrimination, and people don’t do anything about it.”
In addition, about 22 percent of people who answered The Houstonian’s survey said they had experienced racial or ethnic discrimination.