Equating silence with violence: When White Americans feel threatened by anti-racist messages

Frank J. Kachanoff*, Nour Kteily, Kurt Gray

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anti-racist messages educate people about structural racism and argue that indifference and inaction are the foundational building-blocks of race-based inequities. But these messages generate backlash, with several American states banning education about structural racism. We hypothesized that White Americans experience White identity threat and resist anti-racist messages most when they interpret these messages to equalize a lack of anti-racist action (i.e., indifference and silence), treating it as though it were the same as blatant racism. In contrast, we predicted that interpreting anti-racist messages to position silence as a foundational “building-block” for blatant racism would not evoke backlash. In Study 1 (N = 428) ~55% of White respondents in a representative American sample interpreted anti-racist messages as equating indifference with violence, and an equalizing interpretation predicted White identity threat and message resistance. In Study 2 (N = 492) we found that experimentally manipulating anti-racist messages to evoke high vs. low levels of equalizing interpretation led White Americans to feel more White identity threat and in turn be more resistant to both the anti-racist message and anti-racist action in general. In Study 3 (N = 1337) seeing anti-racist messages (vs. no-message) had little effect on White Americans in general, but evoked identity threat and denial of racism among White Americans high in equalizing interpretation who did not interpret the messages as conveying inaction to be a building-block for structural racism. In Study 4a and 4b (N = 789), we reveal a successful nudge for making anti-racist messages less threatening and more motivating for White Americans by using language less likely to evoke an equalizing interpretation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104348
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Anti-racism education
  • Racial and ethnic attitudes and relations
  • Social identity threat
  • Structural racism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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