The Conflicted Language of Interracial Feedback

Kent D. Harber, Stephanie Reeves, Jamie L. Gorman, Christian H. Williams, Jennifer Malin, James W. Pennebaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


How is the natural language of feedback affected when instructors are White and learners are minorities? The present research addressed this question using a website called Feedback Forward through which White undergraduates provided extensive open-ended responses on a poorly written essay supposedly drafted by either a Black or a White fellow student. Results revealed a dissociation between the substance and style of feedback to the Black writer. The Black writer received selectively more overt praise for his or her writing and writing skills, and more encouragement to pursue a writing-related career, replicating past studies of the positive bias. However, this positively biased feedback was conveyed in a selectively more "lenient" style, marked by a simpler and less analytic vocabulary, more personal pronouns, more positive emotion words, and syntax that more closely mimicked that of the poorly written essay. Discomfort supplying feedback moderated these effects. Increased discomfort was associated with more substantive criticism to the White writer, and with a more lenient style to the Black writer. In sum, minority learners may be receiving open-ended feedback that is a perplexing blend of explicit praise conveyed in an implicitly diminishing manner. Additional results showed that manipulated self-image concerns produced positively biased copyedits to the Black writer, replicating Harber, Stafford, and Kennedy (2010). Direct queries from the fictive writer-in the form of rating-based questions-also favored the Black writer, whose essay, ability, and prospects were rated higher than those of the White writer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Educational Psychology
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


  • Feedback
  • Interracial anxiety
  • Interracial communication
  • Minorities
  • Positive feedback bias

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  • Cite this

    Harber, K. D., Reeves, S., Gorman, J. L., Williams, C. H., Malin, J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (Accepted/In press). The Conflicted Language of Interracial Feedback. Journal of Educational Psychology.