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UW-Madison employee behind controversial survey about 'Black roommate' speaks out

Posted at 10:21 PM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-11 23:21:52-04

MADISON — The University of Wisconsin-Madison employee responsible for a survey question asking students to rate how uncomfortable they’d feel if assigned a Black roommate, is speaking out and setting the record straight.

A photo of that question was shared across social media without context, prompting a lot of anger.


Dr. Will Cox, a principal investigator in the Psychology Department, says the question is part of a survey he gave to first-year students.

“It’s a very standardized survey, developed more than 20 years ago, that many different researchers use because it's very effective at getting people to confront these things within themselves,” Dr. Cox said.

Before asking white students to rate how uncomfortable they’d feel if assigned a Black roommate, the survey asked them whether they should feel uncomfortable if they were assigned a Black roommate.

“The goal is to get people to recognize the difference,” Dr. Cox said. “The vast majority answer that it is wrong to feel uncomfortable about a Black roommate. But then, when they admit they would feel uncomfortable on some level, it shows there is some aspect of internal bias. It helps them become more aware of this nuance.”

Dr. Cox says it’s part of a larger study in which half the students who take the survey then go through “Bias Habit-Breaking Training” that Cox helped create. The other half don’t go through the training. Then Cox follows both groups of students over time to study the impact that the training had.

“We almost always find that the students who go through the training are more likely to recognize and fight internal bias in themselves and others,” he said.

Dr. Cox says UW-Madison, where only 2 percent of the student population is Black, is a unique place to do this kind of work.

“We attract a lot of students from bigger cities from the east and west coasts,” he said. “They come to Madison and say it’s the whitest place they’ve ever been. Then, we have students from Wisconsin, who are maybe coming from towns up north, and Madison is the most racially-diverse place they’ve ever been. You have to meet people where they’re at and go from there.”

While he’s disappointed a question from the survey was shared online without proper context, he says it points to a bigger issue in the fight against racism.

“A lot of my other research is how stereotypes and biases spread online through social media,” he said. “That’s one of the main things, people often share things that haven’t been validated.”

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