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Monday, August 27, 2012

Implicit Associations of Racism

Please welcome back Ryan Hansen, a graduate student in clinical psychology. He writes about the subconscious effects that racism has in split-second decisions:

The paradox of modern racism is that we live in a culture in which few people will admit to being racist, yet one has only to look at demographic data on income, healthcare disparities, and incarceration rates to realize that racism still exists.

Dr. Anthony Greenwald asserts that implicit associations underlie many of the stereotypes and prejudices that cause so much harm in our society.   Dr. Greenwald’s research helps to explain the aforementioned paradox by showing that even some of the most well-intentioned people can hold implicit attitudes and more easily pair good attributes with Caucasian individuals and negative attributes with Black individuals.

Dr. Anthony Greenwald
If you haven’t tried it before, I suggest participating in Dr. Greenwald’s experiments online, which can show you empirically how often your split-second decisions regarding race can be surprisingly biased. If you just completed the experiment linked above, you most likely had an easier time paring good words with Caucasian faces and negative words with Black faces than the reverse (often regardless of your own race).

Often, this result is interpreted as showing that most individuals have implicitly positive attitudes toward Caucasians and implicitly negative attitudes toward Black people. However, Dr. Greenwald recently made the point that it could also be interpreted as having a neutral attitude toward Black people and a substantially more positive attitude toward Caucasians, particularly if you are Caucasian.

There is no shortage of research suggesting that we tend to like people who are like us, and are more likely to help them out as a consequence. Often preferential treatment (particularly of loved ones and family) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if done systematically, it can have consequences that are just as horrible as if one were deliberately trying to be racist (see post: Microaggressions).

Often, finding jobs and other opportunities rely as much on favors and networking as they do on objective qualifications, and if white individuals are much more likely to have a friend/neighbor/relative to help their career along, the net effect can be almost as bad as if employers hung a sign saying “Non-whites need not apply.”

Similarly, I know that I would have had little chance of completing my master’s degree if I had not benefited from a thousand acts of kindness, from mentors who took me under their wing, to friends and family who pressured me to fill out applications, to university bursars who made exceptions when I had filled out the wrong forms. Dr. Greenwald’s research suggests that if I had been a racial minority, in each of those thousands of interactions, there would likely have been a fractional second of implicitly biased thinking, and the effects of those milliseconds could add up into countless missed opportunities, hassles, and unintentionally racist acts.

These findings have tremendous implications for us as Christians. Jesus did not say to “do unto others who are like you as you would have done to you” (Luke 6:31). Jesus, as a Jew, went out of his way to minister to other ethnic minorities, such as the Samaritans and the Gentiles, as well as other groups that other Jews would have had both implicit and explicit negative attitudes toward (such as tax-collectors and prostitutes). In Mathew 25:31-40, Jesus explicitly says that we are to minister to strangers, and that this will be one of the criterion by which we will be judged when he comes again in glory.

Most of us, when asked if we are racist, try to determine if we have done anything overtly negative that we know of. However, we must also ask ourselves if we have been as nice, kind, or helpful to others that are different from us as we are to individuals who are similar.

I believe that until we, both individually and as a society, are able to answer that question in the affirmative, we are not living out Jesus’s will to “love (all) our neighbors as ourselves” and truly live in the communion of the Church as he intended.

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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