Exhibit A: Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign changed the way Chinese young people think about black Americans, according to research from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.
“There is this potential for one person from a minority to dispel prejudices,” said Alex Tan, WSU professor of communication and Diversity Faculty Fellow.
Breaking the mold
Obama is an exemplar who didn’t fit the generally accepted stereotype, Tan said. By definition, stereotypes persevere despite evidence to the contrary. But Obama’s campaign and election were too big to ignore, so the stereotype had to change, he said.
Chinese perceptions of black Americans did not undergo a huge shift, Tan said; stereotypes of black Americans already were generally favorable, according data his research group collected in 2006. But a followup study in 2009, directed by Yunying Zhang as part of her doctoral dissertation, found that Chinese teens reported fewer negative stereotypes of blacks after Obama’s election than before.
Yunying said when Obama was nominated for president she saw it as a golden opportunity to study stereotype change. Based on stereotype change theories, she said, Chinese who were following the U.S. election would tend to make more positive social judgments of African Americans as a group.
"Obama made history, and my prediction about stereotype change among Chinese was supported,” she said.
The results of their research are detailed in a paper, “Impact of the Mass Media During the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election: A Cross-Cultural Study of Stereotype Change in China and the United States.” It was an invited submission for a special edition of the journal Mass Communication and Society focused on “Race Matters in the Obama Era” to be published this year.
Before and after
In the study, Chinese and American respondents were asked to rate how each of several traits described Americans in general and then African Americans in particular.
Among the Chinese, the traits that scored highest for Americans in general were rich, open-minded, arrogant and aggressive. The traits that scored highest for African Americans were hardworking, honest, impulsive, aggressive and loud.
When the same survey was given after Obama’s election, Tan said, both Chinese and American respondents reported lower scores for African Americans on negative traits of being violent, loud, impulsive and aggressive. Chinese students who reported fewer negative stereotypes of African Americans also reported more exposure to positive American media reports about Obama and were more knowledgeable about him.
Part of larger study
This research is part of a larger study looking at how the American media shapes perceptions of minorities in the United States, Tan said.
Studying effects of American media on minority stereotypes in the U.S. is nearly impossible because media is all-pervasive and finding control groups is impossible. But, Tan said, by looking at how people in other countries view minorities in the United States, especially people with limited or uneven access to U.S. media, it’s possible to tease out what role U.S. media might play in their perceptions.
In the past three years Tan’s graduate students have collected information in China, Pakistan and Madagascar. In general, Tan said, the more access people in other countries have to U.S. media, the more likely they are to hold negative perceptions of Americans in general and minorities in particular.
Chinese perceptions an exception
But Chinese perceptions of African Americans are an exception, Tan said. Chinese who follow NBA basketball star Yao Ming had the most favorable impressions of black Americans, perhaps influenced by Ming’s relationships with his Houston Rockets teammates.
According to their research, the Chinese hold black Americans in higher regard than Americans in general, and American citizens in higher regard than the American government.
“There’s a hierarchy, and the American media has a negative influence,” he said.
World is connected
An earlier paper, “Stereotypes of African Americans and Media Use Among Chinese High School Students,” was published in the Howard Journal of Communication in 2009. Tan was lead author joined by Yunying and graduate students Lingling Zhang and Francis Dalisay.
Yunying is now on the faculty at Austin Peay State University. Lingling is at Towson University and Dalisay is at Cleveland State University.
Both studies, Yunying said, drive home the point that the world is connected.
“Big social events in one country could have a strong impact on people in another,” she said. “We must have a global perspective when looking at some seemingly national issues.”
Media conveys U.S. to the world
For Tan, the message is that media images matter and, in fact, media images are the primary way most of the world will understand America. To combat negative stereotypes, he said, the media must portray minorities in America across the whole spectrum of life - not just athletes, celebrities or criminals.