Race Study Pays Off In Genius Grant

Eric Herman, Chicago Sun-Times, September 19, 2006

Genius has its rewards. Just ask Jennifer Richeson.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Richeson a $500,000 “genius grant” Monday. The coveted grant comes in recognition of her work in the psychology of racial bias.

“It’s not quite real. I’m totally in the land of the surreal,” said Richeson, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

Richeson’s work is firmly grounded in reality. With techniques including surveys and MRI brain imaging, she studies interactions between races, shattering traditional views of how people think and feel about race.

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation created the grants in 1981. Officially, the program is called the MacArthur Fellowship. But foundation officials concede the “genius grant” label, created by the media, has stuck.

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Richeson will “spend a little bit of time thinking” about the issue that has captivated her since her college days: The complexity of racial feelings.

“This stuff isn’t straightforward. . . It isn’t just a question of who and who is not a bigot,” she said.

For example, Richeson’s work has shown that well-meaning whites work to repress bigoted feelings when dealing with people of other races. Brain scans show “heightened activity in areas of the brain associated with regulating our thoughts and emotions,” she said.

That effort leads to “awkwardness” and “exhaustion” in social interactions, she said, and could lead to depleted ability to perform other tasks.

Richeson grew up in Baltimore and attended public schools. She became interested in race relations while in college at Brown University, which was “a sea of whiteness” filled with wealthy kids, she said.

After getting a doctorate at Harvard University, Richeson taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., before coming to Northwestern last year.

As for the money, Richeson has no plans to take a sabbatical from Northwestern, she said. She said she will devote her efforts to “the mission of improving intergroup interaction.”

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Richeson concludes that well-meaning white people repress bigoted feelings when dealing with other races. The effort leads to “awkwardness” and “exhaustion” in social interactions, Richeson said in a recent Chicago Sun-Times interview.

In other words if you’re a non-white person and get stressed out when you are confronted by what you consider to be racist behavior, you can take comfort in knowing that a lot of whites apparently get just as stressed out trying not to be a bigot. That goes to show you, if we are ever going to improve race relations in our lifetime, many more of us will have to want to work through our barriers.

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