Reading literary fiction can make you less racist

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(Photo: Thinglass/Shutterstock)

The benefits of reading literary fiction are many, from making us more comfortable with ambiguity to honing our ability to pick up on the emotional states of others. Recently published research adds yet another positive to this list: it can make us at least a little less racist.

A Washington and Lee University research team reports that, in one experiment, reading an excerpt from a novel about a Muslim woman produced two welcome results. Readers were more likely to categorize people as mixed race, rather than force them into specific racial categories. They were also less likely to associate angry faces with foreign groups they disliked.

Recent research has shown that when we observe perceived strangers, our brain does less mental thinking associated with empathy. As a result, we feel less connected to them than to our own tribesmen.

“There is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.”

“Perhaps narrative fiction can bridge this empathy gap,” write the researchers, led by psychologist Dan Johnson, in the journal Fundamental and applied social psychology.

Johnson and colleagues describe two experiments that incorporated a 3,000-word excerpt from Shaila Abdullah’s 2009 novel Saffron dreams. It revolves around “an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman, Arissa, who is assaulted in a New York City subway station,” the researchers write. The excerpt features “a meaningful interior monologue that accentuates the protagonist’s strength of character while providing exposure to Muslim culture”.

Participants in the first experiment (68 Americans recruited online) read either the aforementioned excerpt or a 500-word synopsis of the same scene. In the synopsis, “descriptive language, monologue, and dialogue have been removed to reduce narrative quality,” the researchers note.

They then saw a series of racially ambiguous faces and rated them on a four-point scale: (1) Arab, (2) Mixed, more Arab than Caucasian, (3) Mixed, more Caucasian than Arab, or ( 4) Caucasian.

Those who read the rich and detailed account “made far fewer judgmental judgments about race” than those who simply read the synopsis. They also “reported significantly higher genetic overlap between Arabs and Caucasians”, suggesting that their racial boundaries were less rigid and distinct.

The second experiment involved 110 people recruited in the same way online. They read either the aforementioned excerpt from the novel, the brief synopsis of it, or an unrelated piece, “a brief history of the automobile”.

Next, all looked at 12 images of ambiguous Arab-Caucasian faces “with varying levels of angry expression.” They were instructed to rank them on the same four-point scale.

The high-intensity expressions of anger led participants reading either the synopsis or the car’s story to “disproportionately categorize the faces as Arabic,” the researchers report. But this bias was absent among those who read Abdullah’s account.

“Narrative fiction provides a rich context in which exposure to out-of-group culture and (a process of emotional fusion) can occur,” the researchers conclude. “In support of this notion, there is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.

All of this suggests that there is something about well-written, sensitive fiction that draws us in and allows us to identify with the characters, even if they come from a foreign culture. This, in turn, short-circuits our tendency to stereotype.

It will be interesting to know if watching, say, a foreign film would have a similar impact. But since so few of them are distributed in the United States right now, literature might be our best way to get into the minds and hearts of people from other cultures.

In doing so, our own hearts and minds seemingly open up a little more.

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