Looking for Similarities Can Bring Marginalized Groups Together

When African-American NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in August 2016, he said it was in protest of “a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Soon after, National Women’s Soccer League player Megan Rapinoe became the first non-Black professional athlete to also kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. She explained her support by highlighting commonalities between her own experiences as a gay woman and the experiences of racial minorities.

“We need a more substantive conversation around race relations and the way people of color are treated,” Rapinoe told ESPN. “And quite honestly, being gay, I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven’t had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling.”

Rapinoe’s support for Kaepernick may not seem surprising. People do tend to expect members of different disadvantaged groups to support one another. Researchers have also found that if people from one racial minority group (e.g., Asian Americans and Latino Americans) read about discrimination faced by their group, they then generally expressed that they felt more similar to and more positively toward another racial minority group (e.g., Black Americans). And there are certainly examples of different disadvantaged groups expressing support for one another in many situations. For example, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” was a political organization created after his 1984 presidential campaign with the primary goal to advocate for people of all different disadvantaged groups.

“I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven’t had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling.”

But examples can also be found in U.S. history of times when an injustice instead triggered conflict among minority groups. For example, White women feminists often face criticism for purportedly focusing their support on the experienced injustice of White women and largely neglecting issues facing women of color—a criticism that recently spurred the Twitter hashtag: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. Conflict like this is consistent with social scientific theorizing: Feeling that one’s social group is under threat can elicit a defensive reaction in which people derogate groups to which they don’t belong and show preference for their own groups (i.e., intergroup bias). For example, if White women evaluate racial minorities after sexism is made salient, they may report feeling more relative pro-White/anti-minority bias. Similar patterns hold if straight racial minority group members evaluate sexual minorities after racism is made salient.

So, what predicts when minority groups are more likely to support each other? Past work demonstrates that one way to foster such stigma-based solidarity, as we call it, is by considering the discrimination that one’s own group faces in the wake of evaluating a similarly disadvantaged group, such as a racial minority group evaluating a different racial minority group). However, what about groups disadvantaged along different identity dimensions (e.g., a racial minority group evaluating a sexual minority group)? In our most recent empirical investigation, we explored the possibility that stigma-based solidarity can be fostered between groups that are stigmatized along different dimensions of identity by highlighting struggles shared by both groups.

Our recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this hypothesis, providing empirical evidence that highlighting shared experiences of discrimination supports positive intergroup relations between stigmatized groups. Across five studies and looking at intergroup relations between four different disadvantaged groups, we find that highlighting a commonality between two groups’ experiences of discrimination, such as civil rights issues experienced by both racial minorities and sexual minorities in the U.S., results in increased positivity between these two groups (compared to a control condition in which no connection between the groups is made salient).

We find that highlighting a commonality between two groups’ experiences of discrimination results in increased positivity between these two groups.

For example, in one study, straight Asian-American participants read either an article that highlighted historical arguments justifying discrimination against Asian Americans in the domains of housing, employment, and marriage that were similar to recent arguments seeking to permit discrimination based on sexual orientation, or a control article discussing negative health issues faced by Asian Americans. Results from this study demonstrated that Asian Americans perceived themselves as more similar to and expressed more positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians after reading about a shared experience of discrimination compared to the control condition, despite that no explicit connection was made between the groups—gay men and lesbians were not mentioned in the shared experiences article.

Just as Rapinoe’s endorsement of Kaepernick’s protest drew from similarities that she perceived between their experiences, this work underscores the value of highlighting similarities among different groups’ struggles with discrimination.