Am I Racist? The Danger of Racial Bias

No. But I do have an implicit bias.

This means that unconsciously, things like race and appearance do affect my judgement. How do I know? Simple, I did the world famous implicit bias test from Harvard. (several times actually..)

You might be a bit confused. So let me tell you more about it.

Psychologists at not only Harvard, but also the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, created something called “Project Implicit”. Sounds almost like a spy movie..  For this project, they developed Implicit Association Tests (IATs). These tests are also known as Hidden Bias Tests and like the name says, they measure unconscious bias.

How does it work?

AITs compare attitudes towards specific concepts (e.g. Asian, female, old) by measuring the strength of association between such concepts and evaluations (e.g. good or bad) or stereotypes (e.g. athletic, smart, loud). The most famous one of the AITs compares your bias towards black and white people.

An AIT is done on the computer. You will see a page with short defining words in the top left and top right of your screen. In case of the race-based IAT, the left side could show the words “White or Good” and the right side the words “Black or Bad”. Notice the word “OR” in between. When you’re ready, one by one a series of faces and words will flash across your screen. With your fingers placed on two buttons you have to identify as quickly as possible whether the face you see is white (press left) or black (press right). With regards to the words, you will have to identify as quickly as possible whether they are good (press left) or bad (press right). Examples of words are “sweet”, “happy”, “angry”, “violent” etc.

Are you subconsciously RACIST? (Take a Psychological TEST ...

 

Sounds easy enough right? But where the test gets tricky is when the descriptive words on top get shuffled in subsequent rounds. The left corner could now show “Black or Good” and the right one “White or Bad”. The test lasts for several rounds, after which it will tell you whether you have an ‘automatic preference’ towards black or white people. The results are based on the idea that if you react slower to selecting “good” when “black” is linked to it or “bad” when “white” is linked to it, you probably have a bias either against black people or in favor of white people.

In my case, this was true.

Reading between the Lines: Uncovering Unconscious Bias

 

Why do we have hidden biases?

The current scientific theory follows the idea that it was essential for our evolutionary survival to distinguish friend from foe. Because of this, we developed the ability to quickly and automatically categorize everything in our lives, especially people. We needed to know who belonged in our tribe and who might possibly would want to kill us. Thus, we now have this fundamental skill (or curse, depends how you look at it) to group other people into categories based on diverse types of social, physical and other characteristics.

Categorization in itself does not have to be a bad thing. Like I said, it’s original purpose was for us to survive. But it gets dangerous when categorization flows over in stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.

Stereotype = An exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a person or group - a generalization that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation.
Prejudice = An opinion, prejudgment or attitude about a group or its individual members.
Discrimination = Behavior that treats people unequally because of their group memberships. Discriminatory behavior, ranging from slights to hate crimes, often begins with negative stereotypes and prejudices.
From tolerance.org

Mass media have been shown to play a  huge role in the forming of stereotypes as well as the influence of parents and peers. The idea and characterization of “out-” and “in-” groups influence the complex psychological process behind prejudices. Studies showed that children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes when they are only 3 years old, without understanding the significance of any of it.

Why is this test important?

What the researchers hoped and aimed at with this test is to make people conscious of the hidden but very present biases they might have. They believe that our willingness to examine our own biases is an important first step in understanding the beginnings of stereotypes and prejudices. Hopefully, in time, this could remove some of the inequality and hidden racism rooted in our societies. (For the record, implicit bias does not equal prejudice and racism.)

Sadly, social scientists found implicit racial bias towards white people not only to be present in Caucasian people, but in African-Americans as well. Meaning they implicitly think more highly of people with a lighter skin than people with a darker skin. Actually, a lot of interesting research can be found on this topic, also in relation to people with for example an Asian background. I highly recommend you to google more about this if you’re interested.

To be clear, like any famous scientific theory, there is of course also some criticism surrounding this test. Among other things, research showed that doing the test only once will not give you an accurate result. You will therefore have to do it several times. If you want to read more about this, click on this revealing Vox article.

All in all, I do know this test definitely had an effect on my own world view. It has clearly shown me that we have to be aware of our decisions and actions within a broader context than just the tiny world we think we live in.

Interested in finding out if you have an implicit bias in terms of race or any other concepts? Several tests can be done easily online at implicit.harvard.edu

 


Photos in order of appearance: Renee Fisher on Unsplash, thecoli.com, implicit.harvard.edu, Sam Manns on Unsplash

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