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Paula Deen's Teachable Moment: Can We Change Our Attitudes?

To nutritionists, the list of Paula Deen's sins may still be topped by overuse of mayonnaise and a predilection for frying. But the celebrity chef's empire is in free fall because of allegations that she used hurtful, racist language.

Does Dean, 66, need to adjust some of her core beliefs, attitudes and behaviors? Can she, or for that matter, can any of us? And if so, how?

Discussion: Is Paula Deen a Racist? Is Dr. Laura?

Paula Deen at Bristol Motor Speedway
Paula Deen in happier times

There's good news and bad news about racial prejudice, says Princeton professor Susan Fiske, an expert on bias and change.

The bad news? If a lifetime of prejudice has left you susceptible to "foot-in-mouth" disease, it's going to get worse with age. "Many people may be unable to inhibit the tendency to blurt things out even when they know the rules of social behavior and want to behave appropriately," says Fiske's colleague, Bill von Hippel. As you age, your true feelings have a way of slipping out at the worst times.

All the more reason that someone like Deen may need real change before other similar sentiments put an end to her career altogether.

The good news? Fiske cites research that people have an easier time changing their attitudes and beliefs when they're older than during middle age. Age 50 appears to be the low point, but after that, change grows ever more possible with age. That's good news for Deen if she admits to the need for some attitude adjustment.

Related: AARP Voices of Civil Rights

But where to start.

Another specialist in this subject, Linda Tropp, had a thesis: racist behavior can grow out of ignorance and fear. An experiment led by Tropp, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, concluded that white participants who talked about racially charged issues with African Americans were consistently more comfortable if they spent more time listening rather than talking about, and justifying, themselves and their own behavior.

Not surprising, perhaps, but it points to significant opportunities for change and growth.

Tropp's prescription? Deen should attend a "study circle" or local discussion group where people of different backgrounds interact openly and honestly, and spend time listening to and understanding the varied lives of others. That alone would be a great first step toward change.

Here are other tips from Tropp and Fiske:

  • Wean yourself from yes-men (and women) who agree with and enable you. Get better advisers and better advice.
  • Pursue friendships with people different from you, without expecting anyone to be dedicated to educating you. ("I had a friend in college," Fiske says, "who told me, 'I'm tired of being everyone's black experience.'")
  • There's nothing wrong with striving to be authentic and consistent. But there are parts of all of us, says Tropp, that "continue to grow as a function of our experience." Hence, a lifetime of teachable moments.


Photo via Flickr courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway


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