Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Research on Bias

"(P)eople usually resist the notion that they might be perpetrators of prejudice. Their resistance often rests on the fundamental assumption that prejudice and racism are all-or-none qualities, where one is either racist or not. Yet this assumption leaves no room for the possibility that one might sincerely hold egalitarian goals and simultaneously be at risk for perpetrating racism."

from the introduction to Are We Born Racist? (see previous post)

Over the past several decades, hundreds of studies have been mapping bias of all kinds, including bias based on race. Here's a taste of a few of the findings:

* In 2007, NBA referees were more likely to call a foul against a player of a different race, and MLB umpires were more likely to call a strike when the pitcher is of the same race, despite extensive training on how to make fair calls.

* When white people see unfamiliar black people, their brains show an activity spike in the amygdala, the region that lights up when a person or event is perceived as threatening (see this study, among many).

*Implicit racial attitudes are conveyed through body language and other nonverbal behavior, despite the white subjects' intentions.

What brain research documents is automatic or unconscious racism. You don't have to want it, believe it, think it or feel it to have it - and to act on it. Bias is simply the result of how our brains categorize people.

"Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person's apparent race, gender and age in a matter of milliseconds," Susan Fiske writes in the book's title essay. "In this blink of any eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it."

The research corroborates the witness of people of color who have been calling attention to white bias and its impact for centuries. Because much bias is implicit, or unconscious, it's often undetectable to the person who has it but can be quite apparent to someone who's experiencing the impact of it.

This seems like an enlightening explanation for why people of color and white people so often find themselves on opposite sides of a racial divide, yawning between them like a chasm, seemingly with no way across. It explains how it can be that again and again people of color detect racism in certain attitudes or actions, statements or stands, inclinations or institutions, while white people deny it, absolutely certain that there's not a trace of race in what they say, think or do.

The more we stop resisting and start acknowledging the possibility and prevalence of white bias, the more we free ourselves to examine what we can actually do about it.

1 comment:

Andromeda Jazmon said...

My copy of the book "Are We Born Racist?" came in the mail this week. I was really struck by some of the same things you quoted here. I was also heartened to read the research that shows that familiarity and relationship can overcome the initial fear/otherness response. Bias may be the starting place but we can work against it and overcome it.