Social Justice: Biases are Inevitable, Racism is Optional

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Before anyone discusses social justice they should take a few minutes and go to Project Implicit’s webpage. Project Implicit is a series of surveys that use associative cues to tease out inner preferences that we hold unconsciously. By forcing the user to respond more quickly than they can consciously deliberate, the researchers are able to take a look at the thoughts that are occurring at the non-conscious, or automatic, level.

Be warned, though. You may not like what you find out about yourself. As it turns out, I have a “slight preference for white people over black people,” based on how quickly I was able to assign “good” or “bad” to words and faces per the researchers’ instructions. As I generally think of myself as a racially neutral person, I was left feeling pretty uncomfortable with the findings. But I’m not alone; it turns out that basically everyone holds unconscious biases in some form or another based on race, gender, weight, age, etc. If you don’t believe me, well, you probably didn’t click the link in the first paragraph.

Why are we prejudiced? Take a look around and see for yourself. Based on the images we see and the people we hang around, we inevitably become socialized over time to harbor certain beliefs about certain people. Our society constantly reinforces these prejudices: spend two hours watching TV and you’ll be saturated with the message that fat people should be working to get thinner, aging people should try to look younger, being religious closes your mind, being black makes you dangerous and being gay makes you materialistic. When we pay attention we consciously tell ourselves that these generalizations are absurd, but most of the time such associations are unconsciously reinforced.

But just because my unconscious mind is slightly racist doesn’t mean that I actively favor white people over others…if I acknowledge my implicit biases it becomes easier to override them. If right about now you’re feeling uncomfortable about what Project Implicit told you about yourself, find a friend and take a moment to play this game:

Person 1 must constantly hold the number 9,345,231 in their head while Person 2 says a series of nouns, some neutral (car, cloud, dog, etc.) and some that are socially charged (Mexican, gay, woman, etc.). Person 1 must associate the words as quickly as they can while keeping the number in their head. Then, the exercise is repeated while Person 1 holds the number three in their head, instead of the large number.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, has used this test to determine which thoughts are automatic and which require conscious deliberation. If it takes the same amount of time for the person to respond regardless of how large their “cognitive load” is, that means the thought requires no conscious deliberation and is therefore automatic. If, on the other hand, it takes more time to produce a word when thinking of a big number, that means that the thoughts in question have a conscious component to them.

Associations of this nature generally require some conscious deliberation. In this lies hope: While my implicit biases remain, by forcing myself to deliberate I give myself control over whether or not I act on them.

In the context of Social Justice Week, I would call on our readers to take a look inside themselves, recognize their own biases, and think about how different our society would be if everyone were able to consciously override what their unconscious mind would have them think and do.

How would sentencing for African Americans be affected if judges acknowledged their implicit racial biases? How different would the workplace be for women if male bosses made a conscious effort to move past their very real tendency to discriminate based on gender without knowing? Bias is inevitable, but action is optional. We are able to check our biases, but first we have to acknowledge that they exist.

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