We’re All a Bit Racist

Implicit bias makes a just society difficult to achieve

The Harvard implicit bias test demonstrates that most Americans, regardless of their age, gender, educational background, economic level, and religion, are biased against Black Americans and in favor of White Americans (see here and here). This means that the way people subconsciously perceive reality is biased against millions of Americans. It may be unintentional, but we’re all a little bit racist.

The anthropologist Phyllis Dolhinow once began a lecture about doing research with the phrase “I would not have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” The reality behind this twist on the adage “seeing is believing” can tell us a lot about why we are generally a bit racist in the USA today.

Humans are biased in how we interpret information. Our physiological abilities (hearing, sight, olfaction, etc.) vary across people, but it’s our cognitive interpretations of these senses that act as the biasing filter. We develop our cognitive filter in the process of learning how to be a member of a society, and it affects our whole lives. Social scientists call this enculturation and development. And it creates implicit biases.

Implicit biases are part of human implicit social cognition – those thoughts and feelings that are outside of conscious awareness and control. What we think of as “normal,” what we consider intuitive knowledge and common sense, rarely emerges from some inner truth-telling core. More likely we’re drawing from our personal life experiences and the way in which these events interact with and shape or influence us.

Take our body’s response to heat or cold. If one grows up in a very hot environment as an adult, her body will respond more effectively, and less noticeably, to heat stress and she will perceive heat in very different ways than someone from a cold environment. The hot-as-normal person would sweat less and feel comfortable at higher temperatures than the cold-as-normal person. So these two could be in the same place at the same time in the same temperature, but their bodies would respond quite differently and they would perceive the local environment differently (even if they were twins separated at birth). Cognitively, each will feel that their interpretation, and their physical response, is the real one, the natural one.

While we’re all familiar with the old adage “you are what you eat,” few realize that when it comes to humans “you are who you meet.” The people we encounter on a daily basis, speak with, learn from, and hear about regularly are core to our developing perceptions. Our social development, schooling, gender acquisition, peer group interaction, and parental and sibling interactions have an enormous impact on shaping how we respond to social stimuli. The patterns that we participate in and that surround us daily shape our perceptions of what behavior, language, and mannerisms are “normal and natural.”

Keeping this in mind, one can see how Black and White Americans might see the same thing and experience it quite differently (see here). On average Black and White Americans differ in where they live (see here), in how much wealth they have (see here), in how much they earn (see here), in where they go to school, in their exchanges with police officers (see here), shop keepers and even in the way people react to them when walking down the street or in a mall, and on and on.

Implicit bias against Black Americans can cause small behaviors, like clutching one’s purse when a particular type of young man walks by, like imagining oneself in danger just because of the color of the folks around, like assuming that some kids are just going to be worse students or better athletes, or… well, we all get the picture. Most Americans have exhibited many of these behaviors, not on purpose, but because of the society we live in and the limitations of what (and who) we are exposed to. USA society was massively structurally unequal and discriminatory in the past and continues to perpetuate those patterns in the present. It’s no surprise Americans are all a little bit racist.

Even though such biases might be small and unconscious they can have really significant effects when held by one who has direct influence in the outcomes of others’ lives. Think about the impact of such biases and their associated behavior in a police officer, a bank loan manager, a teacher, a job interviewer, or a politician. Racism matters and small biases, when combined with fear and ignorance, can be lethal. The horrific events of Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and Dallas in June and July 2016 alone make that abundantly clear.

But biases and our current state of fear, ignorance, and anger need not be a reality set in stone. Societies, people, and attitudes can and do change. The USA has brought about major changes in civil and social rights over the past 50 years and we can strive for even greater changes over the next 50 – but not until we recognize our biases and the unequal experiences that cause these biases. Inaction and ignorance guarantee that racist biases, and racism, will persevere.

President Obama recently reminded us that we have a system of government that “gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like. America gives us the capacity to change.” Let’s use it. Now.

Human minds are amazing organs with the capacity to grow and adapt over time with the proper due diligence. Study the data in the hyperlinks I’ve offered, understand what bias is and how it works. Even a little recognition of the fact that not all Americans experience the same USA goes a long way.

Of course implicit bias is not just about Race, it’s also about class, gender, geography, age, and many more aspects of difference. But Race is a good place to start. If we acknowledge our own biases and work to open our minds and recognize that the experience of others matters, we might get better at getting along and avoid (or at least lessen) the fear, anger, and resentment that has taken far too much from all of our lives. 

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