Character  &  Context

Salient Multiculturalism Enhances Minority Group Members' Feelings of Power

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By Jacquie Vorauer

Members of ethnic minority groups face many challenges in their everyday lives, including subtle and blatant discrimination, and, more broadly, threats to their social identity. Efforts to mitigate such problems and promote intergroup equality frequently involve telling people how they should try to behave toward minority group members. For example, messages encountered in educational and work settings, on the internet or television, or on the sides of buses or coffee cups may recommend that individuals “Celebrate Diversity!”, “Stamp Out Racism!”, or “Be Color-Blind!” and thereby promote multiculturalism, anti-racism, or color-blindness respectively.

What do we know about whether such initiatives work—and what it means for them to “work”? Most research in this area has focused on whether such messages trigger more positive intergroup attitudes and behavior. Yet it turns out that these kinds of outcomes tend to be more important to dominant group members (e.g., those with a White/European ethnic background), who place a high value on smooth and pleasant intergroup exchanges and on being liked by minority group members (Bergsieker, Shelton, & Richeson, 2010): Ethnic minority group members are relatively more focused on enhancing their power and control (Saguy, Dovidio, & Pratto, 2008).

In a series of studies, Matthew Quesnel and I examined how different messages about intergroup relations influence feelings of power in minority group members. Creating feelings of power in minority group members may be more important to social change than positive intergroup evaluations (Dixon, Levine, Reicher, & Durrheim, 2012) and are known to have a range of important consequences for behavior and goal pursuit (Galinsky, Rucker, & Magee, 2015).

Our main hypothesis was that rendering multicultural ideology salient would empower minority group members by highlighting the unique and valuable contributions that they make. Multiculturalism focuses on the idea that ethnic group differences should be appreciated and celebrated and emphasizes that each group makes important contributions to society. We expected that minority group members exposed to multiculturalism would experience a heightened sense that they are needed by others and that they make contributions to their community that others cannot, which would enhance their personal feelings of power.

Consistent with this, in an initial study we found that ethnic minority group members who endorse multiculturalism tend to feel more powerful. After finding this relationship, we tried to see if we could influence feelings of power by experimentally manipulating their focus on multicultural ideology.

In the first of our experiments, we found that black individuals who read a passage about multiculturalism felt greater relative power in an interaction with a White confederate. In a second experiment, we found that ethnic minority group members sitting across from a multiculturalism poster (as compared to no poster) showed more implicit associations between themselves and power—meaning they were more likely to quickly relate “power” words with words about themselves. A final experiment examined the underlying mechanism in more detail, finding that salient multiculturalism can increase minority group members' sense of power in part because it heightens their perception that they make essential contributions to society.

Our results further indicated that when feelings of power were heightened because of increased attention to multiculturalism, minority group individuals had higher expectations of control when thinking about a potential upcoming intergroup interaction. They also tended to think in more goal-directed ways, such as asking for more in negotiations and reporting an “approach orientation.” Anti-racism and color-blindness messages did not have similar empowering implications for ethnic minorities, and none of these ideologies had empowering implications for dominant group members.

Overall, our results indicate that multiculturalism might potentially have an equalizing effect on dominant versus minority group members’ feelings of power. Notably, although feeling powerful is not the same as having power in an objective sense, individuals' subjective sense of power in and of itself plays a critical role in guiding their behavior (e.g., Skinner, 1996) and feeling powerful has effects similar to being in an objectively powerful position (e.g., Galinsky et al., 2015; Magee et al., 2007). Taken together, these studies suggest that prompting individuals to reflect on multicultural ideological principles might put ethnic minority group members in a position to have a stronger voice and exert greater social influence in intergroup interaction situations.

Jacquie Vorauer is a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. She received her PhD from the University of Waterloo.

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