5/2/08

Curing Your Inner Bigot
By: Mark W Adams


The first step, always, is recognizing you have a problem. We all do.

Scientific American ~ Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain reports on studies regarding buried prejudice, reactions and biased attitudes ingrained into our psyche that affect our perception without even being aware of the phenomenon.
Using a variety of sophisticated methods, psychologists have established that people unwittingly hold an astounding assortment of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups: black and white, female and male, elderly and young, gay and straight, fat and thin. Although these implicit biases inhabit us all, we vary in the particulars, depending on our own group membership, our conscious desire to avoid bias and the contours of our everyday environments. For instance, about two thirds of whites have an implicit preference for whites over blacks, whereas blacks show no average preference for one race over the other.
The scientific evidence is "incontrovertible" according to the researchers.

[Cue the sighs of relief from Wingnuttistan, justifying the hoards of mouth-breathers who would never, ever vote for a woman or black man, and have been running out of other excuses -- like being above discriminatory tendencies they would otherwise have against old people when supporting John McCain.]
Self-interest often shores up implicit biases. To bolster our own status, we are predisposed to ascribe superior characteristics to the groups to which we belong, or in-groups, and to exaggerate differences between our own group and outsiders ...
We do something similar when Robots freak us out too. They're just too different because they are so much like us -- and the more like us they are, the more we process the similarities internally while emphasizing the differences. Shape a robot like a bunny and it's cute. Make it look like an attractive human and we get the shivers because instead of noticing its similarities to us, the differences stand out and give us the creeps.

But just because something is "natural," or explainable doesn't make it right. I have a natural bias towards consuming vast quantities of scotch instead of paying my bills and a wholly natural desire to touch myself in public, but I don't. We really don't need a phalanx of psychologists to tell us that people have a natural affinity towards our own kind. It's what we do about keeping those emotional and often irrational reactions towards others who are different in check.

It's our ability to resist the instincts of the jungle that define us as civilized humans interacting in a functional society. As Americans, we recognize that much of our strength and moral authority that has carried us at least as far in the world as our militarism, is our diversity. We see that sentiment on our money, E. Pluribus Unum, on the welcoming phrases etched on the Statue of Liberty, and inscribed on our founding documents.

Our brains are indeed wired with the instincts of animals.
In a recent unpublished study [Northwestern University psychologist Jennifer A.] Richeson and her colleagues found that white college students’ visual attention was drawn more quickly to photographs of black versus white men, even though the images were flashed so quickly that participants did not consciously notice them. This heightened vigilance did not appear, however, when the men in the pictures were looking away from the camera. (Averted eye gaze, a signal of submission in humans and other animals, extinguishes explicit perceptions of threat.)
However, I would argue evolution is at work, moving us away from a racist and misogynist past as we witness what is by all accounts an historic presidential race. We aren't there yet, but we're moving in the right direction. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Dream" is more than just a political goal, but a social imperative where racial and sexist attitudes will some day be no more than vestigial reminders of our rise from the primordial soup.

What matters most is what we teach our children, and more importantly, show them. There is so much room for growth here. Children start out so much more ahead if those factors that reinforce their subconscious biases are kept to a minimum.
Whatever the neural underpinnings of implicit bias, cultural factors—such as shopworn ethnic jokes, careless catchphrases and playground taunts dispensed by peers, parents or the media—often reinforce such prejudice. Subtle sociocultural signals may carry particularly insidious power. In a recent unpublished study psychologist Luigi Castelli of the University of Padova in Italy and his colleagues examined racial attitudes and behavior in 72 white Italian families. They found that young children’s racial preferences were unaffected by their parents’ explicit racial attitudes (perhaps because those attitudes were muted). Children whose mothers had more negative implicit attitudes toward blacks, however, tended to choose a white over a black playmate and ascribed more negative traits to a fictional black child than to a white child. Children whose mothers showed less implicit racial bias on an implicit bias test were less likely to exhibit such racial preferences.
The experts conclude that racial attitudes start very early in children as yet too young to resist the "norms" they experience with more rational reactions or any connection to fairness, justice or consistency.
[A] 2006 study by Banaji and Harvard graduate student Andrew S. Baron shows that full-fledged implicit racial bias emerges by age six—and never retreats. “These filters through which people see the world are present very early,” Baron concludes.
What the experts have also found is that unchecked emotional responses "do, in fact, contaminate our behavior." One victim of this bias was shot 50 times by the police. The reason he was shot in the first place, as well as the "reasonable" bias the judge felt excused their feeling there was a threat when indeed there wasn't any is patently clear.
Sean Bell was a black man. If he was white, you know it is much more likely those cops would be in jail now. Of course when was the last time you ever heard of a white man being shot fifty times on the street.
That's how you and I see it. The experts see the same thing, and have a name for it: "weapon bias."
... both blacks and whites tend to mistake a harmless object such as a cell phone or hand tool for a gun if a black face accompanies the object. This “weapon bias” is especially strong when people have to judge the situation very quickly.
Little comfort that this might give to the families of Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo, recognizing that something beyond hate, but psychological and behavioral pathologies are at work here gives us tools to improve if not eliminate the consequences of our latent prejudices. Prejudices the researchers found were more prevalent in whites, yet insidiously unrecognized. Becoming aware of the problem, indeed acknowledging there is one begins the road to reform.

More integration of women and non-whites in positions of authority seems to work wonders. One can only project at this time what it really would mean to have a woman or black man as president, but it should bring this nation quite a ways forward if these examples are any indication:
Seeing targeted groups in more favorable social contexts can help thwart biased attitudes. In laboratory studies, seeing a black face with a church as a background, instead of a dilapidated street corner, considering familiar examples of admired blacks such as actor Denzel Washington and athlete Michael Jordan, and reading about Arab-Muslims’ positive contributions to society all weaken people’s implicit racial and ethnic biases. In real college classrooms, students taking a course on prejudice reduction who had a black professor showed greater reductions in both implicit and explicit prejudice at the end of the semester than did those who had a white professor. And in a recent unpublished study Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that female engineering students who had a male professor held negative implicit attitudes toward math and implicitly viewed math as masculine. Students with a female engineering professor did not.
I can think of nothing that will more profoundly "restructure our environments to crowd out stereotypical associations and replace them with egalitarian ones," than electing Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama this year. Indeed, every time I see Obama praise Ronald Reagan or Hillary adopt a right-wing talking point, I instinctively cringe because it sets back the progress of the cultural reform they represent.
In other words, changes in external stimuli, many of which lie outside our control, can trick our brains into making new associations. But an even more obvious tactic would be to confront such biases head-on with conscious effort. And some evidence suggests willpower can work..
So if you want to help your children evolve, to have less to overcome than you do when confronting your own prejudices, support and vote for a Democrat this year, even if he or she isn't the one you're supporting right now. Your kids are counting on you making it a better world, one where we don't value one type of person over another because of stereotypes instead of their inherent worth.

Nothing will beat people over the head with the righteous baseball bat of equality than a woman or black guy in the White House. Let's hit one out of the park.

2 Comments:

Morris said...

ANd nothing reinforces racial prejudice more than seeing the other conform to their group'd negative stereotypes, like Reverend's out there lying about AIDS or babbling that jesus is an African. Just ask the taxi driver who is more likely to rip him off, kill him or at least not even leave a tip and they will tell you hte same group of people who murder almost all taix drivers. Call me a racist all you want but I am just being honest and realistic.

Mark W Adams said...

Okay, your a racist. Just an honest and realistic racist.

But your still a racist, or at least a partisan goon.