Sunday, October 02, 2005

What's That Smell?

In one of my classes, our professor asked us to take this 5 minute online cognitive test called the Implicit Associations Test (IAT). It’s a test that’s designed to measure associations that are implicit or hard-wired into your brain that you usually suppress. To summarize, the test measures the time in milliseconds that it takes you to assign characteristics to different categories. Our professor asked us to do the racial associations test to see if we associated white or black faces with being “good” or “bad”. I invite you to go check out the site and play with the tests (there are some for gender, sexuality, agedness, and obesity associations, too).

To try out the tests, CLICK HERE and then select “demonstration”, then “go to demonstration test”, and then select the “I Wish to Proceed” on the disclaimer. There are about a dozen different tests and they take about 5 minutes to complete.

I won’t debate the validity of the test, because you can clearly game the test by purposely taking more time on certain sections, but assuming you play along, and do the test as fast as possible, the findings would at least have face validity as to measuring your “implicit associations”. I took the racial AIT, and the test reported that I associate white people with being “bad” more easily than blacks, and that I associate blacks with being “good” more easily than whites. I discussed my results with a group of my white classmates (I’m the only black male in the class), and they all bragged about how the test came back neutral for them.

In our homework essay, our professor asked us to comment on if we found it difficult to accept our test results. I don’t find it particularly difficult to accept that my test results indicate that I have some implicit associations that are racially biased. I already knew I had some implicit bias in my view of race. To have no implicit associations between race and “goodness”, I would have to be incredibly unobservant of the world around myself. The world is full of messages (both obvious and subtle) that blacks and whites are good or bad. Being that I grew up in an urban black community in the South where many people were overtly mistrustful of white people and some were clearly racist, does it surprise anyone that I implicitly associate white Americans with “badness”. I cannot remember my parents ever having a white person even come into our house with the exception of those who were there to repair things. I watched my parents behavior as a child and I am sure I was able to discern different patterns of behavior around whites versus blacks. (Not to mention the occasional offhanded comment from them.) My parents grew up drinking out of “colored-only water fountains”, so I’m sure their implicit associations are stronger than mine.

What is more concerning than my having implicit racial bias are those who deny that they have any implicit associations whatsoever…those people that claim to be “colorblind”. If someone takes this test and brags about how neutral he is, I suspect that person may have something to hide. Anyone who tells you he is absolutely 100% racially colorblind is either cognitively impaired or a liar. It’s not politically correct (especially for whites) to admit to any bias in racial attitudes, but bias is present, because we have all grown up in this divided nation (divided by race, class, gender, etc). There is no sin in having your brain adapt to the world around it and form “hard-wired” associations from your observations and experiences. It’s called conditioning, and as Pavlov demonstrated, it’s how we learn. If my most impressionable years were filled with messages that I should not trust white people, then I am likely going to develop an implicit association between whites and “badness”.
Part of maturing into an adult is developing a rational intellect, where you are able to dismiss things that you associate implicitly, because you have learned that those associations are faulty. For instance, as an adult, I have learned to suppress my association of dogs and danger. When I was a child, I grew up in a neighborhood that had a handful of ill-tempered dogs that were not always properly chained or gated. I implicitly associate canines with snarling, chasing, barking and teeth. When I moved to Boston, I was initially disturbed by how many people walked their dogs with no leash. Some of the dogs were quite large, but I learned that in my yuppie neighborhood, those dogs were well-trained docile creatures that were accustomed to strangers. Having said that though, I am aware that the implicit association between dogs and danger still exists in my brain, because I have to “tell myself” that I am safe when I see somebody walking their German Shepherd down the street. Likewise, I have grown-up to realize that race has nothing to do with a person’s inherent goodness. I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact, when my implicit racial bias is tempting me to judge unfairly. I don’t think my character is flawed because of my implicit attitudes, but it would reflect poorly on my character if I did not suppress my implicit bias with my intellect.
The immoral man is the one who hides/denies his implicit biases regarding race, but let’s his racist associations rule his consciousness. I’d rather be around someone who is publicly racist and actually celebrates his implicit racial bias, because at least he has some honesty and integrity of character. Instead, so many people claim to be free from the perversions of the mind that our racially divided society engenders, and all the while their behavior is riddled with prejudice. Our cultural duplicity has the smell of rancid meat and fills everyone nostrils, but we all deny that we notice the stink. Political correctness has left our society thinking we are suppose to ignore race, but how are we as a society suppose to ignore the social construct that has most shaped and defined our collective social consciousness, ugly as it may be. The elephant in the room (or the foul stench, in my previous analogy) is racism, and if we don’t accept that we all have these racial biases than we will continue to be crippled by the social dysfunction that it generates. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 did not occur because some cops were acquitted of police brutality. LA burned because some white cops were acquitted of brutalizing a black man. And speaking of acquittals, OJ Simpson did not walk out of the courtroom a free man in 1995, because the evidence exonerated him. OJ was set free, because the jury could not assess the impact that racism might have in contaminating a murder investigation. And even last month, we saw race became the central theme in the hurricane Katrina catastrophe, with some taking the accusations of racism right to the White House. And with everything pointing to how malignant and pervasive racism is in our society, my classmates sat there bragging about how “colorblind” the online test had claimed they were. I’m sitting there dumbfounded. Do they think I’m going to get angry, because they admit that America’s racist culture got to them too…that they too smell the rank odor that is lingering in the air. I started to make my case that we all have implicit racist attitudes but I knew those who had claimed racial neutrality would be even more defensive about racist attitudes after having bragged about their equipoise, so I let it go until another time. I guess we will have to spend yet another day smiling in each others faces pretending that racism does not exist … ignoring the putrid smell of America rotting from the inside out.

Your implicitly racist brother,

“In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
~Harry A. Blackmun


At Tue Oct 04, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

I took the test. Apparently, I have a moderate preference for Black Americans over White Americans. Shocker. :-)

At Tue Oct 04, 08:03:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

I have a strong preference for White Americans over African Americans.

To be honest, I am not shocked. I have always known I had a little Ward Connelly.

I have been generally disappointed by people throughout my life and since I was raised around mostly African Americans, most of that disappointment and subsequent criticism (which is just a defense mechanism for hiding rage) has been directed at my own people. It has been black police officers who disappointed me the most when they assumed I was a criminal because they should have known better. It was my own people that infuriated me when they had low expectations for me. It was black people who could not mask their own insecurities and made me feel poorly about being intellectual (and being light in complexion, using correct grammar, and being unfamiliar with the judicial system/what it takes to survive in prison without being totally victimized). It has been black women who have consistenly viewed me in the context of their own stereotypes and prejudices. (Before somebody goes off on me, let me note that I have nearly exclusively dated black women).

What I am saying is, I think I just don't like people very much. If I had been raised around white people, perhaps they would have been the source of many more of my disappointments...

At Tue Oct 04, 08:44:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Isn't it interesting how we often find comfort outside of our own cultural/racial/ethnic communities? At least, I do. I have wondered about it many times and, for now, have concluded that it is because those in my "group" have absurdly high standards of who I date or marry, who I have as friends, what opinions I hold, etc. People outside my "group" don't seem to care as much because somehow it's not as personal to them. It's all quite irrational, but such is the nature of life.

At Sat Oct 08, 05:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I have a white, straight, and light skinned preference, and I don't agree with my results. Afterall, I grew up around mostly
White Americans (in a redneck Texasville town) who frequently reminded me that my race was inferior - of course with a hint of sincerity in their voice and across their eyes so that I wouldn't take the comment as an insult but as a fact that they took the time to share with me - or enlighten me as they may have thought. Possibly I'm just a confused girl but I like straight and dark skinned men.... hummmm ... 3 of my last 4 beaus were lighter than most though. Again, possibly I'm just a confused girl. But I do know that I do NOT prefer White Americans over Black Americans. The word "nigger" just never sat well with me, and White Americans were the people who gave me that nickname to keep me in my "inferior place." My Black interactions were never that degrading. So screw that test. ;)

At Sun Oct 09, 08:38:00 PM, Blogger chad said...

I took the test again and this time it says I have a moderate preference for whites. I do think the methods may be flawed. You can game the test both intentionally and subconsciously to avoid getting a result that creates too much internal cognitive dissonance. Perhaps when I took the test this time, I was more willing to accept a preference for whites since I had seen other black people who had done this. Or maybe the test has no validity whatsoever. The findings of the test are not what surprised me…What surprised me was that there is not one white person in my class who admits to getting a preference for whites. All claim the test said they had a preference for blacks or that they were “indeterminate”. The non-white people I know who took the test seem to have been much more comfortable reporting actual results they got on the test even if the test said they preferred another race to their own. They would just dismiss the test as invalid or accept that maybe their life experience had generated a little self hate. But not one white person (out of ~50 in my class) was willing to admit that a test of dubious validity had so much as suggested that they might have even a slight preference for whites. To me that is the most interesting thing about the test…that whites don’t feel comfortable disclosing that they have an implicit association of white as being good. Political correctness has robbed them of their courage to be honest, and that’s a shame, because we can’t get past our prejudices if we can’t admit that we have them.

Your politcally incorrect brother,

"Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible."
~Maya Angelou

At Mon Oct 10, 02:41:00 PM, Blogger MIZPOWDERPINK said...

It’s my day off so I took three tests:-)

1. The data suggested that I have a preference for White Americans over Black Americans.

2. The data suggest a moderate automatic preference for Dark Skin compared to Light Skin.

3. The data suggest a slight automatic preference for Straight People compared to Gay People

Clearly flawed..I'm the fag hag who is paranoid about white people and I always seem to attract light complexion

That white guilt will get em everytime. I'm not surprised. The movie crash addressed this issue with the young white cop who "thought" he was race-neutral. Last week Oprah had the cast on the show a discussed the truth about prejudice. Good timing.

Your classmates need to knock it off. Whitey... always have to appear to be right(eous). White is right in my subconscious according to the

At Thu Oct 27, 07:27:00 PM, Blogger Reina Proverbial said...

I finally got around to taking this test and the most interesting result was that I have strong preferences for whites and darker skin??? Since I took the test seriously, I would have at least expected the evaluations to be consistent, but oh, well. For now, I'd rather deal with my supposed preference to whites.

I am having a hard time digesting this one because I, too, grew up in smalltown Texas where many of my childhood activities were unofficially segregated. I had a nice childhood and loved hanging around my black friends in my predominantly black neighborhood and doing "black things". However, I had a slightly different experience than my Black American counterparts in that I spent many of those formative years as the only black in most school related stuff. I was the first black in the gifted and talented program. I was the first black to join the debate team and one of few to assume some key leadership roles on campus. These experiences eventually motivated me to give my white classmates the benefit of the doubt since they really had nothing to do with the origins of slavery and racism. I formed some very positive and lasting relationships there.

Although I expected significant discomfort in my new and practically lily white environment at college, I was pleasantly surprised to meet many white students that I enjoyed being around. Don't get it twisted. I still spent most of my time with blacks as I do now, but I mention these examples to point out that I never felt a tremendous burden of racism when interacting with these particular groups.

So -- to address your concern regarding your classmates -- could it be that the newer generations of whites (ex. college educated whites)have found that race really doesn't matter in life and therefore, they don't use it to estimate value and ability? I wonder whether blacks are holding on to past hurt and implicit racisms as a defense mechanism to prevent being bruised by racial injustices again. After all, no one wants to get caught sleeping on the job, so to speak. However, I would like to believe that the state of race relations is evolving and that the labor of our ancestors was not in vain.

Now I'm not crazy enough to think that out of a class of 50, everyone's result came back indeterminant -- especially when I hear only 4% of blacks make over $70K per year. This startling factoid definitely stems from racism. But I am OK with living in a hope that the message of the civil rights movement is finally getting through. Later, Flava.


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