Very few people think of themselves as racists. It’s painful and awkward to acknowledge our prejudices. In the United States, our culture teaches us things about people who are different from us from the day we are born. Even if we are raised by parents who make a sincere effort to teach us that prejudice is wrong, we can’t help but have these cultural narratives seep into our subconscious. Pretending this isn’t true throws up major obstacles to attempting to correct our biases, and the recent tragic killings of unarmed black men shows we can’t afford to ignore this problem.
Chris Mooney at Mother Jones recently looked at the science behind our biases and working to correct them.
Science offers an explanation for this paradox—albeit a very uncomfortable one. An impressive body of psychological research suggests that the men who killed Brown and Martin need not have been conscious, overt racists to do what they did (though they may have been). The same goes for the crowds that flock to support the shooter each time these tragedies become public, or the birthers whose racially tinged conspiracy theories paint President Obama as a usurper. These people who voice mind-boggling opinions while swearing they’re not racist at all—they make sense to science, because the paradigm for understanding prejudice has evolved. There “doesn’t need to be intent, doesn’t need to be desire; there could even be desire in the opposite direction,” explains University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek, a prominent IAT [Implicit Association Test] researcher. “But biased results can still occur.”
You can take an online version of the Implicit Association Test here. As Mooney writes, it can feel stressful as you work to complete the test quickly enough while struggling against your own inevitable biases. I wish I could say mine showed up with no preference, but I came out with a moderate preference for European American people. But I’m also not at all surprised, knowing what I know about the messages that were fed to me in the decades I’ve been on this planet. It’s better to know and correct than hope and ignore.
The whole piece delves into the history of this kind of research and other tests particularly aimed at police officers. What this research points to is the idea that to tackle this problem, we need to talk to people about that the fact that it is quite possible to not want to be racist while acting on racist assumptions, especially when a lightning-fast response is involved.
Unsettling though it is, the latest research on our brains could actually have some very positive outcomes—if we use it in the right way. The link between essentialism and creativity doesn’t just tell us how we might reduce prejudice. It could also help us to become a more innovative country—by prioritizing diversity, and the cognitive complexity and boost in creativity it entails. The research on rapid-fire, implicit biases, meanwhile, should restart a debate over the role of media—the news segment that depicts immigrants as hostile job snatchers, the misogynistic lyrics in a song—in subtly imparting stereotypes that literally affect brain wiring. Indeed, you could argue that not only does the culture in which we live make us subtly prejudiced, but it does so against our will. That’s a disturbing thought.