Do White Liberals “Talk Down” In Order to Connect With Black Audiences?

A new study led by Cydney Dupree, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, has found that White Americans who hold liberal political views tend to use language that makes them appear less competent in an effort to connect with racial minorities.

The study analyzed the words used in campaign speeches delivered by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to different audiences over the years. The research team scanned speeches delivered by White candidates over a 25-year period. About half of the speeches were addressed to mostly minority audiences, such as at a Black church. The other half were given to mostly White audiences.  The researchers analyzed the text of these speeches for words related to competence and words related to warmth.

The results showed that Democratic candidates used fewer competence-related words in speeches delivered to mostly minority audiences than they did in speeches delivered to mostly White audiences. There was no significant difference in Republican candidates.

This prompted the researchers to conduct a series of new experiments in which White participants were asked to respond to a hypothetical partner, half of which were given a stereotypical White name, such as Emily, and half were given a stereotypical Black name, such as Lakisha. The participants were asked to select from a list of words for an email to their partner. Each word was scored on how warm or competent it appeared. The participants also completed a questionnaire about their political views.

The results found that liberal individuals were less likely to use words that would make them appear highly competent when the person they were addressing was presumed to be Black rather than White. There was no significant difference in conservative individuals.

The researchers suspect this behavior is due to a liberal person’s desire to connect with other races. “There’s a lot of research focused on biased individuals and how holding bias, especially implicit bias, can influence social interactions,” said lead author Cydney Dupree. “But that leaves a lot of people out. My hope is that this work will help include well-intentioned people who see themselves as allies but who may be unwittingly contributing to group divides. There is a broader need to include them in the conversation.”

Dr. Dupree is a graduate of Brown University, where she majored in psychology. She holds a master’s degree in social psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology and social policy from Princeton University.

The study, “Self-Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals,” was published on the website of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Susan T. Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, co-authored the study. It may be accessed here.

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  1. Duh, democrats ponder and appease black voters not only with unintelligible, vernacular words. Obama was notorious for doing this and so was Hilary Clinton. Her hot sauce comment was cringing. This is an example of soft and subtle bigotry, using undermining tactics in an attempt to get the black vote without any critical input from targeted voters.

  2. Hmmmm… words taken out of context. Might also be helpful to know the content and purpose of the speeches.

    Also, could be that Whites perceive other Whites negatively and feel the need to use cold, distanced language.

    • I doubt it, the sociology here has been studied in different environment and under different settings and come to the same conclusions as this study. I find this behavior of ‘dumbing down’ to this particular ethnic group to be disturbing, condescending, and, in general, a stereotypical practice of inner perceived bias that is, in fact, racist.

  3. It will be very helpful to read the entire research article rather than simply responding to a brief news article. This research has potential importance far broader than political speeches.

  4. Very interesting. It could be that liberals may talk down because implicit assumptions about minority members’ knowledge coupled with a desire to be understood by Blacks (benevolent racism), while conservatives may not talk down because they don’t particularly care about connecting with Blacks. Of course, the operative words are “could” and “may” since, although I know Dr. Fiske to be totally credible, I have not (yet) read the study.

    • Celesti-
      Republicans talk the same why to blacks as whites, so I think it isn’t about not caring about “connecting with Blacks”, but having a standard and conventional form of communicating with audiences regardless of skin color. Conservatives are known as traditionalist. I understand there is a need to make oneself relatable and do away with conventional norms of communicating. The democrats could find balance in connecting with Blacks through raising their standard of speech without downsizing how they communicate.

  5. “The researchers suspect this behavior is due to a liberal person’s desire to connect with other races.” That’s one way to look at it. However I think it fits with the broader understanding that Democrats treat blacks like children. Children need to be taken care of, spoken warmly to, and can’t be expected to make it on their own. Like a mother who needs to be needed who can’t stop cutting the crusts off the sandwiches she still makes for her 30 year old child.

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