White Americans are only one group of many among Americans. But the “typical” American, research tells us, is perceived as white by white Americans, black Americans, and Asian Americans alike. When one group among several, such as white people, is considered to be typical of a larger group, such as Americans, then that group is said to be “prototypical” of the larger group.
Studies show individuals who are prototypical of their group are “positively valued and awarded access to resources and social standing.” So, too, it can be said of a subgroup that is prototypical of a superordinate group. Being prototypical brings social capital, whether it is true of an individual in their own group, or one’s group as part of the larger group. So, what happens when one’s position as prototypical is threatened? Or more specifically, how might white people react if we are no longer seen as the prototypical American?
A recent research report examined this question. The researchers hypothesized that white Americans might feel threated if their status as prototypical was seen to be eroding, as might be the case if current population trends continue and people of color become a numerical majority. They speculated that
…individuals under prototypicality threat should respond in two ways to defend against this threat. First, individuals experiencing prototypicality threat can seek to reassert their subgroup’s prototypicality by demanding that other groups assimilate to established norms. Assimilation reinforces the notion that norms associated with the prototypical subgroup are the norms to which all others should conform. Alternatively, individuals may devalue the general concept of diversity as doing so directly targets what threatens to dislodge their subgroup’s prototypicality.
To test their ideas, the researchers used a sample of 184 white American adults. Participants were asked to rate how they felt the population of white Americans would increase or decrease between now and the year 2050.
In addition, participants answered questions designed to measure five variables:
- Support for assimilation – the degree to which they felt other people should assimilate to prevailing (white) norms.
- Prototypicality threat – the degree to which they felt the role of white Americans as prototypical was likely to decline over time.
- Realistic threat – the degree to which they felt the growth of other groups would deprive their own (white) group of resources. This variable was measured to assess its possible impact on support for assimilation and to see whether it, rather than prototypicality threat, could account for differences in that support.
- Symbolic threat – the degree to which they felt the values and beliefs of other groups would conflict with those of their own group. Like realistic threat, this variable was included to compare its possible impact on support for assimilation, and to see if prototypicality threat also had distinct role.
- Prototypicality distribution – This last variable refers to the extent that a person felt that white people were prototypical of Americans compared to African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans. One might view each group as somewhat representative, or alternately, one might single out a group such as white people as being much more representative than all other groups. The researchers hypothesized that those who saw a greater dispersion of prototypicality among many groups would be less likely to experience prototypicality threat.
Findings of the First Study
Participants who saw greater possibility of a declining white portion of the population were also more likely to support assimilation of others to white norms. This was mediated by prototypicality threat. In other words, the more one felt their prototypicality was at risk of loss, the more one reacted to population loss by supporting assimilation. Realistic threat also played a role, with those foreseeing higher realistic threat also supporting assimilation more strongly. Symbolic threat did not have an impact.
The relationship between prototypicality threat was strongest for those people who felt their (white) group was most prototypical of Americans. Participants who saw other groups as also representative of Americans were less likely to experience prototypicality threat, and accordingly, less likely to support assimilation to white norms.
Since the data in the initial study relied on correlations, the researchers the devised a second study using an experiment. In other words, rather than simply measuring how much participants felt the population of white Americans would change between now and 2050, the researchers set up two different groups. They gave each group projections of the growth of “white” and “non-white” Americans over time. In one group the projection showed both whites and non-whites growing at the same rate, resulting in no change in relative proportions over the long run (majority retention condition). In the other group, the projection showed that non-whites would become a majority by the year 2050 (majority loss condition). Altogether, 98 white American adults took part in this second study. However, the researchers screened out white people who lived in “immigrant gateways,” that is, regions of the country highly diverse by race and ethnicity. This comprised 10 regions altogether such as Chicago, Boston, Jersey City, Newark, and San Francisco. The researchers felt white people from these regions would be more adapted to diverse surroundings, and thus “immune to the social changes we were interested in examining.”
In this experiment, the researchers measured two variables:
- Prototypicality threat – This variable is conceptually the same as the one in the first study. Questions different in their exact wording used in the first study, but similar in their content, were used.
- Diversity endorsement – this was measured using 6 questions aimed at determining “the extent to which participants thought diversity should be valued and encouraged in America.
Findings of the Second Study
Participants in the majority loss condition reported a greater degree of prototypicality threat and a lower degree of diversity endorsement than those in the majority retention condition. Furthermore, greater prototypicality threat was related to lower levels of diversity support among participants in general.
Researchers usually do not devise studies without an eye on some broader social application. In the current situation, the researchers express concerns that the cohesion of our society may be at risk and “[j]ust as the focus once was on ethnic minority members as a threat to social cohesion, the focus now has shifted to Whites.” The demographic shifts leading to a shrinking proportion of white people in the US are well underway, widely anticipated, and either feared or embraced depending on what one feels the impact may be.
White people, the researchers contend, will act to defend their position as prototypical and “All-American” when they feel this position is threatened. The foregoing studies point to two ways they might do this. One is by raising calls for assimilation and conformity to white cultural norms. Of course, these norms currently call for whiteness to remain unnamed, so the actual call one hears is that people assimilate and conform to an “American” identity which, at its heart, is white. The second way whites may respond to the threatened loss of their prototypicality is by failing to support diversity.
The researchers suggest other defensive approaches may manifest:
[P]rototypicality threat may compel individuals to engage in behaviors intended to present themselves and their subgroup as more prototypical of the superordinate category (e.g., displaying American flags). Prototypicality threat may also lead majority group members to deprecate other subgroups’ claims to prototypicality or to apply restrictive inclusionary criteria to preclude members of other subgroups from qualifying as ‘‘true Americans.’’
The good news, as the study demonstrated, is that those white people who felt that other groups are also prototypical of an American identity were not threated by the demographic changes at hand. Hence the researchers make a parting suggestion:
As demographic changes compel us to redefine what it means to be ‘‘all-American,’’ a more inclusive conception of who fits the prototype of the superordinate group may be a potentially effective strategy for ameliorating Whites’ opposition to diversity.
Danbold, F., & Huo, Y. J. (2015). No Longer “All-American”? Whites’ Defensive Reactions to Their Numerical Decline. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(2), 210–218. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550614546355