Aversive Racism

Aversive Racism

Aversive Racism Definition

Aversive racism is a form of contemporary racism that, in contrast to the traditional form, operates unconsciously in subtle and indirect ways. Aversive racists regard themselves as nonprejudiced but, at the same time, harbor negative feelings and beliefs about members of minority groups. Aversive racism was originally hypothesized to characterize the attitudes of many well-educated and liberal Whites in the United States, toward Blacks, but the basic principles apply to the attitudes of members of dominant groups toward minority groups in other countries with strong contemporary egalitarian values but discriminatory histories or policies. Despite its subtle expression, aversive racism has resulted in significant and pernicious consequences, in many ways paralleling the effects of traditional, overt racism (e.g., in the restriction of economic opportunity).

Nature of the Attitudes

Like other forms of contemporary racism, such as symbolic and modern racism (which focus on people with conservative values), the aversive racism framework views contemporary racial attitudes as complex. A critical aspect of the aversive racism framework is the conflict between positive aspects of people’s conscious attitudes, involving the denial of personal prejudice, and underlying unconscious negative feelings toward, and beliefs about, particular minority groups. Because of current cultural values in the United States, most Whites have strong convictions concerning fairness, justice, and racial equality. However, because of a range of normal cognitive, motivational, and sociocultural processes that promote intergroup biases, most Whites also develop some negative feelings toward, or beliefs about, Blacks, of which they are unaware or which they try to dissociate from their non-prejudiced self-images. These processes include the spontaneous categorization of people as ingroup and outgroup members on the basis of race (and the associated cognitive biases), motivations for status for oneself and one’s group, and sociocultural processes that promote stereotypes and system-justifying ideologies. Consistent with the aversive racist framework, Whites’ conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit) attitudes are typically dissociated.

Aversive RacismSubtle Bias

The aversive racism framework also identifies when discrimination against Blacks and other minority groups will or will not occur. Because aversive racists consciously endorse egalitarian values, they do not discriminate in situations with strong social norms, which would make discrimination obvious to others and to themselves. In these contexts, aversive racists are especially motivated to avoid feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that could be associated with racist intent. However, aversive racists also possess unconscious negative feelings and beliefs, and these feelings are typically expressed in subtle, indirect, and easily rationalized ways. Aversive racists discriminate in situations in which normative structure is weak or when they can justify or rationalize negative responses on the basis of factors other than race. Under these circumstances, aversive racists engage in behaviors that ultimately harm Blacks but in ways that perpetuate their nonprejudiced self-image. In addition, aversive racism often involves more positive reactions to Whites than to Blacks, reflecting a pro-ingroup rather than an anti-outgroup orientation, thereby avoiding the stigma of overt bigotry and protecting a nonprejudiced self-image.

Evidence in support of the aversive racism framework comes from a range of paradigms, including studies of helping behavior, selection decisions, juridic judgments, and interracial interaction. For example, in personnel or college admission selection decisions, Whites do not discriminate on the basis of race when candidates have very strong or weak qualifications. Nevertheless, they do discriminate against Blacks when the candidates have moderate qualifications and the appropriate decision is therefore more ambiguous. In these circumstances, aversive racists weigh the positive qualities of White applicants and the negative qualities of Black applicants more heavily in their evaluations, which provide justification for their decisions. In interracial interactions, Whites’ overt behaviors (e.g., verbal behavior) primarily reflect their expressed, explicit favorable racial attitudes, whereas their more spontaneous and less-controllable behaviors (e.g., their nonverbal behaviors) are related to their implicit, generally more negative, unconscious attitudes.

Combating Aversive Racism

Traditional prejudice-reduction techniques have been concerned with changing old-fashioned racism and obvious expressions of bias. However, traditional techniques that emphasize the immorality of prejudice are not effective for combating aversive racism; aversive racists recognize that prejudice is bad, but they do not recognize that they are prejudiced.

Nevertheless, aversive racism can be addressed with techniques aimed at its roots at both individual and collective levels. At the individual level, strategies to combat aversive racism can be directed at unconscious attitudes, for example, with extensive training to create new, counterstereotypic associations with Blacks. In addition, because aversive racists consciously desire to be egalitarian, inducing aversive racists to become aware of their unconscious negative attitudes motivates them to try to inhibit their bias in both thoughts and action.

At the intergroup level, interventions may be targeted at changing the ways people categorize others. One such approach, the common ingroup identity model, proposes that if members of different groups (e.g., Whites and Blacks) think of themselves in terms of shared group identities (e.g., as Americans), inter-group attitudes will improve. Under these circumstances, pro-ingroup biases will be redirected to others formerly seen as outgroup members thereby producing more positive feelings toward them and reducing inter-group bias. Many of the conditions outlined by the contact hypothesis and other anti-bias interventions reduce bias, at least in part, by creating a sense of a common ingroup identity.


Although aversive racism is expressed in indirect and easily rationalized ways, it operates to systematically restrict opportunities for Blacks and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups, contributes to miscommunication between groups, and fosters a climate of interracial distrust. Understanding the nature of aversive racism can help contribute to policies that inhibit its effects (e.g., by focusing responsibility on decision makers) and help identify new techniques for eliminating unconscious bias.


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4.         Kovel, J. (1970). White racism: A psychohistory. New York: Pantheon.