Prejudiced against our will

Table or results from an online Implicit Associations Test.
Table of results from an online Implicit Association Test.

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.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

8 thoughts on “Prejudiced against our will”

  1. I took the IAT in high school multiple times and every single time I got “slight automatic preference for black people” every single time. I was honestly confused, because sometimes I’ll catch my own implicit prejudices and call myself out for them, so in reality I probably do have a slight preference for whites that, like you said, has been conditioned in us from the media, parents, peers, teachers, etc.
    Most of my classmates got moderate preference for whites–some slight, some strong, but I don’t remember anyone else’s test showing preference for black people. Not surprising, given I went to a high school that was roughly 80% white, 15% Asian, 5% everything else (black, Native American, mixed).

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  2. The most disturbing — to me, at any rate — research along these lines are the studies indicating that people (especially but not exclusively whites) see black people as less capable of experiencing pain. Which then plays out in all kinds of horrible ways, from patients receiving less, or less-effective, painkillers to jury decisions about the extent to which harm has been inflicted on various victims.

    Have you come across any research that addresses ways to counteract these implicit racial biases? I mean: knowing this happens is an important step — now how do we work to correct the harm being done because of it?

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    1. That is indeed disturbing.

      I haven’t seen any in-depth research on undoing these biases, but the original Mother Jones article gets into it a bit. For instance, when people were instructed to think the word “safe” before looking at black faces, they were then less likely to misidentify black people as armed in some of these experiments.

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  3. Really interesting! I got slightly in favor of African-Americans (which surprises me because of how I was brought up) and a really strong correlation between male and career (which does not surprise me because of both how I was brought up and my own activities and preferences).

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