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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Pascaline Van Oost and Team

14.09.2021, by Tina Keil in grant report

Pascaline Van Oost (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium), Jessica Bray (University of Texas at El Paso, USA) and Corine Stella Kana Kenfack (University of Bologna, Italy)

from top left: Pascaline Van Oost, Jessica Bray, Corine Stella Kana Kenfack
from top left: Pascaline Van Oost, Jessica Bray, Corine Stella Kana Kenfack

I said “I’m Sorry!”: Apologizing for Derogatory Group Labels in Conversations with Racial Ingroup and Outgroup Members

Derogatory group labels (DGL) are offensive terms that aim to dehumanize a person or group by negating their heritage (Allen, 1983; Brown & Levinson, 1987; Rahman, 2012; Simon & Greenberg, 1996). DGLs (e.g. “nigger”) differ from other insulting phrases (e.g. “asshole”) because they foster dehumanization and avoidance of the targeted group (Fasoli et al., 2016). Additionally, the perceived offensiveness of DGLs is strongly related to the historical context and use of the phrase (Cresswell, 2009). In particular, the history of intergroup relations may affect how a member of one group receives a DGL from a member of another group such that DGLs are perceived as more offensive when they are delivered by outgroup members (Haslam et al., 2011). For example, the word “nigger” is a DGL that targets Black/African people and is considered the most offensive when White people use the word to describe Black people. The use of DGLs not only generates negative emotions, but also generates, negative outgroup outcomes such as avoiding contact with outgroup members and forming negative attitudes toward outgroup members (Fasoli, et al, 2015; Odea et al., 2015, Winiewski et al., 2017). Although research demonstrates that DGLs are perceived as more offensive when delivered by outgroup members, the majority of research focuses on majority members perspectives rather than minority member perspectives. This grant has allowed us to gain a better understanding of the DGLs psychological repercussions for minority members. We have developed a line of research to examine how DGLs are perceived in intra relative to intergroup contexts. Specifically, we are investigating Black peoples’ perceptions of DGL use from other Black people (ingroup members) and from White people (outgroup members). We argue that the type of slur (generic or DGL) and the race of the person delivering the slur (White versus Black) should interact to produce a series of intergroup attitude outcomes.

First, we conducted a pilot study to compare two image-repair strategies for delivering an ethnic DGL (“nigger”) or non-ethnic DGL (“bitch”). Specifically, we examined justification, corrective action, and no apology. Justification referred to acknowledging using the offensive word while corrective action referred to vowing not to use the word again. Participants were asked to read a vignette text where a white person delivered the DGL to his black teammate. Negative perceptions of the insult, insult commonality, and prejudice encouragement were measured. Results showed that corrective action, was perceived as the less offensive compared to justification and no apology for both DGLs. We also found that the ethnic DGL was less common and encouraged more prejudice than the non-ethnic DGL.

Then, we conducted a second pilot study to examine the differences in perceived offensiveness, commonality, prejudice encouragement, and forgiveness for using a racial DGL (“nigger”) and a general insult (“asshole”). We chose to run a second pilot study with the word “asshole” because “bitch” is a DGL for women. Although the insult is not directed to our participants, the perception of the insult might differ for women participants. The results of the pilot study showed that corrective action was again perceived as less offensive, compared to justification and to control for both DGLs. A main effect of the slur was observed, meaning that the N-word was perceived as more negative than the “asshole” slur. In terms of communality, no diffeences were found for how common each slur was. We also found that the “N-word” was perceived to be encouraging more prejudice than “asshole”.

In our first experiment, the aim of this experiment is to examine how Black participants respond to witnessing a Black person being called an ethnic DGL (the n-word) or a general insult (“asshole”) that was delivered by another Black person (ingroup members) or a White person (outgroup member). We predict that the ethnic DGL will be perceived as more offensive, lead to more negative affect, lower morality ratings for the person delivering the slur, higher metaperceptions ratings for the person delivering the slur, and less anticipated contact with outgroup members compared to the general insult. We also predict that outgroup members will elicit higher offensiveness ratings, more negative affect, lower morality ratings, higher metaperceptions, and less anticipated contact with outgroup members. Additionally, we predict a significant interaction where these effects are magnified for outgroup members who deliver the ethnic DGL. Finally, these effects will be moderated by participants’ group identification such that the aforementioned effects will be magnified for those with high ingroup identification. The study is preregistered on OSF. We are have just managed to reach our total amount of participants, a day before submitting this report. We are very hopeful for the results and will be analysing the data in the coming days.

The studies conducted with the EASP Seedcorn funding have outlined a line of research that examines minority group perspectives of ethnic DGL use from both ingroup and outgroup members. Our results so far suggest that ethnic DGLs are more offensive, less common, and induce more prejudice than non-racial DLGs and general insults. Although we do not have results for Experiment 1 yet, we have set a foundation to continue this line of work by investigating whether various image-repair strategies lessen the blow and foster forgiveness of ethnic DGL use in intra compared to intergroup conversations. The EASP Seedcorn grant has fostered a fruitful collaboration with people from around the world. Our research team has met multiple times to create experimental stimuli, design the studies outlined above, and analyze the data. We are hopeful for the results of Experiment 1 and look forward to launching our second experiment and writing up this work for publication.


  • Allen, I. L. (1983). The language of ethnic conflict: Social organization and lexical culture. Columbia University Press
  • Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
  • Cresswell, J. (Ed.). (2009). Oxford dictionary of word origins (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Fasoli, F., Carnaghi, A., & Paladino, M. P. (2015). Social acceptability of sexist derogatory and sexist objectifying slurs across contexts. Language Sciences, 52, 98-107.
  • Haslam, N., Loughnan, S., & Sun, P. (2011). Beastly: What makes animal metaphors offensive? Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 30(3), 311-325.
  • O'dea, C. J., Miller, S. S., Andres, E. B., Ray, M. H., Till, D. F., & Saucier, D. A. (2015). Out of bounds: Factors affecting the perceived offensiveness of racial slurs. Language Sciences, 52, 155-164
  • Rahman, J. (2012). The N word: Its history and use in the African American community. Journal of English Linguistics, 40(2), 137-171.
  • Simon, L., & Greenberg, J. (1996). Further progress in understanding the effects of derogatory ethnic labels: The role of preexisting attitudes toward the targeted group. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1195–1204.
  • Winiewski, M., Hansen, K., Bilewicz, M., Soral, W., Świderska, A., & Bulska, D. (2017). Contempt speech, hate speech: Report from research on verbal violence against minority groups. Warsaw, Poland: Batory Foundation.