The Situationist

Afraid of Knowing Ourselves

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 11, 2009

Race CowardiceLast month Charles Blow wrote a nice opinion piece, titled “A Nation of Cowards?” in the New York Times, in which he discussed Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments on the topic and echoed many of the themes routinely raised on The Situationist.   Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last month, twice as many blacks as whites thought racism was a big problem in this country, while twice as many whites as blacks thought that blacks had achieved racial equality. . . . [A] CNN poll from last January found that 72 percent of whites thought that blacks overestimated the amount of discrimination against them, while 82 percent of blacks thought that whites underestimated the amount of discrimination against blacks.

What explains this wide discrepancy? One factor could be that most whites harbor a hidden racial bias that many are unaware of and don’t consciously agree with. Project Implicit . . . has administered hundreds of thousands of online tests designed to detect hidden racial biases. In tests taken from 2000 to 2006, they found that three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias. (Blacks showed racial biases, too, but unlike whites, they split about evenly between pro-black and pro-white. And, blacks were the most likely of all races to exhibit no bias at all.)

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So why do so many people have this anti-black bias? I called [Situationist Contributor] Brian Nosek, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Virginia and the director of Project Implicit, to find out. According to him, our brains automatically make associations based on our experiences and the information we receive, whether we consciously agree with those associations or not. He said that many egalitarian test-takers were shown to have an implicit anti-black bias, much to their chagrin. Professor Nosek took the test himself, and even he showed a pro-white/anti-black bias. Basically, our brains have a mind of their own. This bias can seep into our everyday lives in insidious ways.

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Now that we know this, are we ready to talk? Maybe not yet. Talking frankly about race is still hard because it’s confusing and uncomfortable.

First, white people don’t want to be labeled as prejudiced, so they work hard around blacks not to appear so. A study conducted by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that many whites — including those as young as 10 years old — are so worried about appearing prejudiced that they act colorblind around blacks, avoiding “talking about race, or even acknowledging racial difference,” even when race is germane. Interestingly, blacks thought that whites who did this were more prejudiced than those who didn’t.

Second, that work is exhausting. A 2007 study by researchers at Northwestern and Princeton that was published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found that interracial interactions leave whites both “cognitively and emotionally” drained because they are trying not to be perceived as prejudiced. The fear of offending isn’t necessarily cowardice, nor is a failure to acknowledge a bias that you don’t know that you have, but they are impediments. We have to forget about who’s a coward and who’s brave, about who feels offended and who gets blamed. Let’s focus on the facts, and let’s just talk.

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You can access the entire editorial here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

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5 Responses to “Afraid of Knowing Ourselves”

  1. philosoraptor said

    It’s also important to note that Holder said “WE”. The focus of Blow’s column (and on almost all of the other postings that I’ve seen about Holder’s comments) seems, quasi-implicitly, to interpret Holder as referring only to white Americans. I wish that you had noted that here…

  2. Robert said

    I am always amused at stories like this, where an IAT researcher admits that even he or she can’t go through the test without showing bias. If you’ve done the exercise a few times and haven’t figured out the trick, then you need to play more video games. And no, I’m not just talking about slowing down for the harder task, or imagining a venerable black like Nelson Mandela. I can go through virtually any IAT very quickly, make almost no errors, and score as having no preference for either group.

    When you press your left or right finger in response to seeing one group or the other (e.g., black or white), ready yourself for a stimulus (e.g., good keyword or bad keyword) corresponding to the same finger. So when the goal is to press your left finger for (black or good) and your right finger for (white or bad), then when you see a black face and press your left finger, prepare yourself to pounce on a good keyword. It may take a few times practicing with my vague instructions, but you will notice that the test becomes much easier.

  3. Craig said

    I am always amused at stories like this, where an IAT researcher admits that even he or she can’t go through the test without showing bias.

    Um, it’s possible that the researchers are interested in the truth rather than beating the test.

  4. Robert said

    Craig, this exercise has been proposed for things like screening jurors and police officers for racial views, not just exploring your own attitudes, so it’s important to know you can get whatever score you want with repeated exposure. Also, my amusement wasn’t about IAT researchers failing to know some kind of Konami Code, but about left/right categorization tasks still being difficult for them after many tries.

  5. […] Afraid of Knowing Ourselves . . . . According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last month, twice as many blacks as whites thought racism was a big problem in this country, while twice as many whites as blacks thought that blacks had achieved racial equality. . . . [A] CNN poll from last January found that 72 percent of whites thought that blacks overestimated the amount of discrimination against them, while 82 percent of blacks thought that whites underestimated the amount of discrimination against blacks.(…) […]

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