It is a universal truth that a racist is an ignorant sort, both vile and evil. To be racist is to be embroiled in an ancient conspiracy that the color of every human’s outer layer of skin denotes inherent qualities of good and evil.
A racist perpetuates this conspiracy — always in his own favor. To the racist, the color of his skin means he is superior, both physically and intellectually, to people with a different skin tone. To the racist, melanin is a predictor of qualities, good and bad, and just by looking at people, he can deduce everything he needs to know. Black is bad. White is good.
Racists know this. Society perpetuates it, and the rest of us rail against it. Notions of race are perpetuated from infancy; we all tend to prefer our own. We feel more comfortable, at ease, with those who look like us. We may know intellectually that the color of our skin can’t possibly make any difference in our abilities, our gifts, our intelligence and our good or bad qualities, but somehow our subconscious thinks otherwise. Science may prove that to be human, intelligence, honesty and goodness depends not on the color of one’s skin, but on the character they possess. Science may also prove that to be human means we subconsciously characterize, compartmentalize and judge others on simplistic criteria — like the color of one’s skin — that are inherently wrong.
Like most white people wrought with good intentions, I don’t think I’m racist. I think that I am color-blind. I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood, went to racially diverse schools, and have friends from all colors, religions, and sexual persuasions. I am one of the “good” white people. Except I’m not. Not really. It’s subtle, but I find myself trying a little too hard, catching the eye of a stranger that is different looking from me and smiling a little too much, like I’m trying to convey, I’m not like the others, I’m nice. I’m not racist, I’m color-blind. Except subconsciously, I am very aware of our differences and the way society characterizes us. I’m the good guy because I’m white. No one will ever question that because on the surface it is very apparent and in our subconsciouses it is ingrained.
There is a race problem in America and in the world. I thought it had been solved. I thought we all had evolved. Unfortunately, I was naive and I was wrong.
Researchers at Project Implicit who study our subconscious biases have found that there are factors at work that we don’t even recognize with our conscious mind. I’m not aware of my biases, yet they are implicit. We might not say that we are racist, but inherent tendencies have been ingrained in us by our families, our movies, our television shows, commercials, and news outlets. Our biases are fed by images, stories, and even by omission, like the lack of positive images of people of color in our media.
Project Implicit is a non-profit organization of researchers who are interested in studying this implicit social cognition, the thoughts and feelings outside of our conscious awareness and control. Researchers not only focus on implicit biases about race, but also about age, gender and sexual orientation. They have developed an interesting array of tests called Implicit Association Tests (IAT) that determine the level of social bias the user has. I took one of the tests about race and was sure I would score in the unbiased category.
Except I didn’t. I made my spouse take the test, too. We both had the same outcome, moderate bias toward white. How could this be? I was one of the good ones.
You can take the test, too at the following link: www.implicitharvard.edu
The test is simple, really, you just need a touch screen. It is a timed test, so before starting, make sure you will have about 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time. The test pairs words and pictures, a positive or negative word appears, and you are timed to see how fast you can apply the word to the picture/word. It uncovers subconscious biases toward race and how quickly one can associate a black face with a positive word. It’s subtle, but powerful. At the end of the test, your outcome appears along with an explanation of the results.
Statistically, the majority of whites taking the IAT tends to show bias for whites. For blacks taking the IAT, it is more subtle. Blacks tend to have an equal bias for white and for black, meaning that for about half of blacks taking the test, they are biased against people of their own color. Such is the strength and power of racial inequality perpetuated by our society.
Test results are not a way to uncover a closet racist. It is a way for each of us to address the subconscious biases that we harbor outside of our conscious selves. I was not a racist before the IAT and I’m not one afterward, but I do have biases, and I am not OK with that. The researchers recommend ways to change implicit bias:
One solution is to seek experiences that could undo or reverse the patterns of experience that could have created the unwanted preference. This could mean reading and seeing material that opposes the implicit preference. It could mean interacting with people that provide experiences that can counter your preference. A more practical alternative may be to remain alert to the existence of the undesired preference, recognizing that it may intrude in unwanted fashion into your judgments and actions. Additionally, you may decide to embark on consciously planned actions that can compensate for known unconscious preferences and beliefs. This may involve acts in ways that you may not naturally act – for example, smiling at people who are elderly if you know you have a implicit preference for the young.
Knowing I have a bias is a gift. I am now able to embrace my shortcomings and work consciously to change my unintended prejudices. I am going to keep smiling at others no matter what their skin color, gender, age or sexual orientation, like a virtual handshake with my eyes, saying I see you, the you beneath the skin, and we are the same.