Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Well, it turns out I'm a big racist.

I borrowed Matt's copy of Blink yesterday, which if you've been anywhere near an airport bookstore lately you'll know is Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller on the intuitive thinking and snap judgments that our unconscious mind performs.

At one point, he directs you to a Harvard research project known as Project Implicit, where scientists are working on what Gladwell terms the seemingly obvious, but actually profound fact that humans make connections more quickly between ideas that seem related in their minds.

They have a series of tests on the website, the most disturbing of which, if you're a big racist like me, is the race test. In it, you are shown a series of faces of African Americans and caucasian Americans. Then you have a series of words that are either obviously positive or obviously negative, like "joy" and "terrible." At different parts of the test, you have to match the good words with white faces and the bad with black, and then vice versa. The test will measure if it takes you more time to make the pairing when you have to associate it with one or the other.

In my test, I first had to pair good with black and bad with white. You have to go really fast or your test will be inconclusive. I stuttered, paused, hit the wrong button, and generally bumbled the thing. So, fine, I though, not so good at these. Then it was time to pair good with white and bad with black. And with increasing horror and dismay I watched my fingers, without hesitation, nail it. Boom, boom, boom, I didn't miss a one, and I didn't have to think.

The results, predictably, showed that I have a strong preference for white over black.

On top of being really embarassing, it didn't seem quite right. I like to think of myself as a pretty race-neutral person. I live in a majority black neighborhood in a majority black city, and so it's not like I'm unfamiliar with this foreign idea of African Americans. I talk to black people at bus stops. I never feel scared around groups of black people.

But, that's precisely the problem. When I do pass the time of day with the friendly black lady at the bus stop, somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm thinking "See? Look how enlightened I am. I'm totally comfortable with black people." And when I'm walking around the neighborhood or the metros unafraid, I'm constantly congratulating myself on not being afraid of the black people around me. These are not actions or thought processes that occur around a group of teenage white boys at the metro, or when I shoot the shit with a white kid at the sandwich counter. I'm still operating on different assumptions, and even though my conscious mind tries to counteract it, this test showed that I'm still very much in thrall to my racist-ass unconscious.

At least I'm not alone; I believe something like 80% of the people who take the test end up on my miserable side of the ledger. The makers of the test suggest that if you don't like your results, you will have to make very deliberate efforts to acquaint yourself more intimately with black culture in order to replace the negative associations that have situated themselves in your unconscious mind. I'm all for it, shamed as I am by my results, but seeing as how the black population of Georgia is roughly nil (obviously the country, not the state, eh?), that project may have to wait until next year.

Anyway, try it yourselves, and if you have to lie, please tell me that you're all racists too.

On the other hand, I show no association whatsoever between male and female with science or liberal arts. Must be all those artsy fartsy men I know and those female T.A.s in science courses.


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