The Washington Post Magazine did a story this week on the Implicit Association Test, which purports to show whether people have an implicit bias for one group over another; for example, for white people over black people, or for fat over thin people. One of the things that it shows, or so the story reports, is that people have rather more biases than they may be consciously aware of, or that they would like to admit — in the opening paragraphs, a gay man and a lesbian take the test and discover their implicit biases are toward straight people (the two, who had agreed to have their names published in the story, withdrew their names for attribution after their results came in).
I was curious to see whether the test would register a bias in me, so I went to the Project Implicit website and took the test for race — specifically the one for a preference for black Americans over white Americans, or vice versa. I had my own suspicions on how the test would turn out, but you never know until you take it. The test description states that the test “indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black” — and according to the magazine article, that preference includes nearly half of black Americans. Am I any different? Apparently not: “Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for White American relative to Black American,” the test told me once I was done.
I’m not terribly surprised. I am white and raised predominately among white people. The high school I went had a high percentage of minorities but they were predominately Asian and Indian/Middle Eastern with very few black students: There were none in my graduating class, for example. My college was also racially mixed but again fairly few black students. Work life? Same set-up. And now I live in a small Ohio town with almost no minorities of any sort, and I write science fiction. I was at a science fiction convention this weekend, and out of 900 or so people, you could have counted the number of black participants and not run out of fingers.
Do I feel bad I have this bias? Well, I wish I didn’t, of course. But this bias is not news to me; I’m self-reflective enough to know where many of my biases lie. I would feel bad if I let this bias go unchallenged in myself, so I try not to do that. If one looks at the actions of my life, it’s fairly clear I don’t let this particular bias rule how I live, where I stand politically or how I make my friends. A stupid man would take a bias as an excuse for behavior; I, hopefully smarter, see bias as something to question.
I also take (small and possibly not appropriate) comfort in knowing whatever automatic white/black bias I have is subsumed by a much more active automatic bias I have, which is arrayed along economic/educational lines rather than racial ones. I can pretty much guarantee you that if I were to take an implicit association test which featured white-collar black people working in an office and white folk in John Deere caps coming off a hunting trip, I’d be skewing toward the black Americans at least moderately. Educated, reasonably affluent people are “my” people, because I’ve always lived among the educated and reasonably affluent (even if as a child I was poor myself), and my attitudes are molded therein.
This is the “Target vs. Wal-Mart” class bias; basically, people whose biases slice by way economics and education are okay popping into Target for cheap products from China, but would be mortified if anyone ever saw them walking out of a Wal-Mart with the exact same products in tow. One of my favorite stories is the time I was in a small Illinois town with two good friends with whom I went to high school, one a lawyer and the other in the film industry. My friends needed to get a DVD player and the only place to get one in this little town was a Wal-Mart. Pretty much all Wal-Marts have their departments in the same place, so I steered my friends to the electronics section. They were appalled at the fact I knew the Wal-Mart layout at all. They, of course, had never been in one.
(Later, all three of us went to the Subway in the strip mall and were arguing about the merits of the then-current Adam Sandler film Punch-Drunk Love; my friends loved it and I didn’t hate it, but then the guy behind the counter said that Adam Sandler’s other films were better because they were funnier, and everyone in the store who was listening in was nodding their head in agreement. Same “Target vs. Wal-Mart” attitude, different exhibition of it.)
This “Target vs. Wal-Mart” bias is, I should note, is no more fair. And it’s with no small irony that I’ve found myself living in a small rural town where the vast majority of residents have no more than a high school education and work as truckers, farmers or in other intensely blue-collar fields. Aside from the color of my skin, there is very little I have in common with most people in my little town. And yet, for all my automatic biases against the lower-income and lesser-educated, I will tell you that I have truly excellent neighbors, who go out of their way to help us when we need help, and for whom we do the same. I’m glad to live where I do.
Is this the end to my biases? Goodness, no. I’ve got a bunch, and aside from the two mentioned I won’t bore you with them. Basically, I know what my biases are. I also know that my biases are wrong. My biases are what they are; I work to change them and keep them from making me approach individual people unfairly.
One of the things in the Washington Post article that I think is interesting is that the people who developed the implicit association test don’t think that one’s automatic biases are destiny, and that we can make a conscious decision to work against our own biases. Naturally, I agree, and I find it encouraging that they believe so. It’s a reminder that psychologically speaking, human beings are more than a mere bundle of their basest fears and desires. Or can be, in any event.