Wednesday, 06 February 2013

Am I a Racist?

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Britain and America are much more tolerant countries than they used to be. At most gatherings, an overt expression of racism is social death. The equivalent of defecating on your host’s carpet. Everyones going to notice, talk about it and never invite you back.

And yet …

The Implicit Association Test tests your subconscious attitudes to race. And it’s results are scary and hopeful at the same time. It works like this. The participant is twice shown a series of words – some positive words like good, helpful, kind. Some negative words like bad, hate and murder. On the first occasion they are asked to put all the positive words to the right hand side of the screen – where there is a picture of a white face – and all the negative words to the left hand side – where there is a picture of a black face. On the second occasion, the faces swap sides and the task is to move the positive words to the black face and the negative words to the white face. Their speed in completing the task is timed both times.

The vast majority of white participants complete the first task (where the good words go with the white face) quicker.

Why? Because for some reason they find it easier to equate white faces with good and black faces with bad.

Now these are not people who are overtly racist. Most of the people who ‘fail’ the test are vocally anti-racist. You can take the test for yourself here:

But here’s the hopeful bit. Malcolm Gladwell recounts in his book Blink, one man’s daily attempt to ‘pass’ the test. Each morning he took the test. And each morning he failed. No matter how much he tried, he came out as biased towards white faces. Until one morning. He came in late to work having got caught watching something on TV. Same as everyday, he took the test. And passed. His results showed no pro-white bias. He stopped, amazed. And reflected. What had he done differently that day. He’d been watching TV. What had been on? The Olympics. He had sat and watched row after row of black athletes win medal after medal. And his brain suddenly found it easy to link black to good.

The moral of the story? The Test shows us that – without positive experiences of others – our biases run deep. And yet a short interaction can make a real difference.

Thats why we should care so much about building an ‘encounter culture’ where people from different ethnicities, ages and incomes find it easy to meet. 

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