An Unconscious Racist

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When you get some time, I would recommend everyone to try the several Implicit Association Tests (IAT) available at www.implicit.harvard.edu. Including my favorite the Race IAT. I’ve taken the Race IAT on many occasions, and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your attitudes toward blacks and white are, I answered like most average people, that I think of the races as equal. Then comes the test, a series of pictures of faces flash on the screen and you are required to categorize them. Finally, they give you a result like “moderate automatic preference for whites or “moderate automatic preference for blacks”.

So if you do get one of those results, does it mean you are a racist? I would say not exactly.

What it means is that our attitudes towards things like race or gender operates on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious attitudes, this is what we choose to believe (like that I think all races are equal). These are our stated values, which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. This is what made us fight for abolition of slavery, 1970s civil rights movement or apartheid policies of South Africa. But, there is a second level, our racial attitude on an unconscious level – the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we have even had time to think. What is disturbing is that the test can show that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. Of course, we are civilized humans and this mismatch is not going to affect what you’ll choose to say or feel or do. In fact, I believe that in all likelihood you wont be aware that you are behaving any differently than you would around your own race.

But chances are you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less. Does that matter ? maybe not in a train or at the bus stop but think of a job interview. Suppose the applicant is Indian, he is going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little less confident, and a little less friendly. And what will you think then ? You may get a gut feeling that the applicant doesn’t really have what it takes, or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe he doesn’t want the job. Sadly, your unconscious first impression has thrown you hopelessly off course.

So how ? how does someone change their unconscious thinking? I don’t have the answer to that. But I do believe our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means we can change our first impressions by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions. For example: if you are a Chinese person who would like to treat Indian people as equals in every way – it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to them on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture (just eating cheese prata or indian food occasionally doesnt count), so that when you want to meet, hire, date or talk with a member of another race, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort.

p.s I would recommend this appreciable book called “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a great read if you are mystified about the power of our unconscious.

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