Monday, March 28, 2011
I've gleaned from the book that there are two sources of implicit bias. I'll call them Sorting (the instantaneous calculations our minds use to place people into in-group - "Us" - and out-group - "Not Us"), and Associations (the cultural messages we absorb.)
Sorting seems to be hardwired into human brains and therefore not a function we can turn off. "Conditioned by millennia of tribal warfare and fierce competition for limited resources, we are always looking for cues to help us make snap judgments about others," Susan Fiske writes in the book's title essay.
But an automatic "Not Us" snap judgment about another person doesn't mean an automatic value judgment; it's just data to the brain. We can consciously direct what our minds do with information that is categorized unconsciously.
"In the neuroscience studies looking at race, ... amygdala (vigilance-related) reactions vary by individual, corresponding to other signs of prejudice... (T)he alarms in whites' amygdalae do not go off to famous black faces. Likewise, their brains grow accustomed to new black faces after repeated exposure," Fiske writes. We can affect the brain's recordings by having more interactions with the people it labels "Not Us."
These interactions can also change our Associations. "Years, even generations, of explicit and implicit cultural messages - gleaned from parents, the media, firsthand experiences, and countless other sources - link particular physical appearances with a host of traits, positive and negative," Fiske reports. It is, it seems to me, another form of hardwiring, often invisible tracks laid down throughout the foundation of society, in our manners and mores, our ideals and our institutions.
Choosing to be vigilant about uncovering what we've internalized - rather than denying that those messages are there because they don't match our intentions or our self-image - is a powerful step towards loosening the grip of automatic bias on our behaviors. And building significant cross-racial relationships and meaningful connections, such as working together towards a common goal, can gradually override even the most fundamental prejudices.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Banaji explained that as our brains categorize people into "like us" and "different from us," a universal function, we have "zero experience that this is happening." Because it's unconscious, we can't control the implicit bias that is the brain's method of imposing order.
What we can influence is what we tell the brain to do with that information. We can choose behaviors that are "in line with what we intend, not with our unconscious prejudices." "New methods for self-discovery are available," Banaji said, such as the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. "With these methods, anyone can line up behavior with intention." According to Banaji, we can "use our big, fat prefrontal cortex to decide: which biases do we want to keep?"
Our minds are shaped everyday by the associations we create. Our current society and culture is white-dominant. A constant exposure to such a diet will nurture White Mind. But we don't have to simply accept this status quo.
Banaji's advice: Choose models - books, music, movies, friends, images, etc - "that give you data contrary to what society is giving you." These models contradict and balance out the bias we're being fed and that our brains are forming. (It's a powerful argument for exposing children to books with positive images of all kinds of people, especially those who are often portrayed negatively or are invisible in the media; more about that in the next few posts.) As we change the associations in our minds, this will naturally flow into our behaviors, especially the unconscious ones of voice tone, facial expression and body language.
Even without testing, we can take inventory of our own lives. We can look at the choices we make - the books we read, the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the friends we hang out with and invite into our homes. Then ask ourselves, do the patterns of our lives match our intentions?
Saturday, March 12, 2011
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.
Recently I read Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology, a collection of short essays originally published in Greater Good Magazine. It's a highly accessible overview of recent findings documenting the prevalence of implicit, or unconscious, bias, and offering concrete steps to ameliorate the prejudices our brains form.
There are so many juicy ideas packed into this slim volume, divided into three sections: The New Psychology of Racism, Overcoming Prejudice, and Strengthening Our Multiracial Society.
The book has inspired a series of posts sharing some of the information I gleaned from the essays and adding my thoughts to the conclusions reached by the authors and editors.
Here's what I'm planning to post over the next month or so:
1. The Research on Bias
2. We Can Change Our Minds
3. Noticing Race: Conversations and Strategies
4. Reviewing Picture Books About Race (6 titles)
5. Trying Too Hard
7. Getting to Know You: What Groups Can Do
Please join in the conversation.