Challenging unconscious prejudice and racism - a starting point
  • Eirini

Challenging unconscious prejudice and racism - a starting point

Throughout the last few weeks, I was trying to understand my thoughts on racism and put them into something coherent, as well as educate myself further on the issue. This led to me remembering the implicit association tests (IAT) I discovered when I was in high school, thanks to my dad, who showed them to me. They seem to be quite a good measure of implicit (unconscious) racism, amongst other prejudices such as sexism or fat-phobia. There is even a test for whether individuals tend to associate black individuals with use of weapons more than they would associate white people with them.

The link is here, and there is the full list of implicit bias tests:

I found that they are trying to collect a lot more data recently, including public attitudes towards the Covid-19 crisis, and it is up to each person whether to answer their extra questions, or skip them. I would suggest that if the questions come before the actual test, you persevere until you get to the test, because the results can be a really good starting point of checking your own hidden beliefs towards minorities.

So, how does the test work? You put one finger on the letter I, and another on the letter E (preferably different hands, which then raises questions about disability inclusivity, meaning that, like most online tools, it is not perfect). Then there are images and words presented to you, and the test judges how quick you are to associate positive or negative words, e.g. happy/sad, amazing/horrible, etc with each category-e.g. black/white people, fat/thin people, able/disabled people, etc. From now on, I will just focus on the black/white (race) IAT, but the same rules apply for all other tests you might wish to take.

There is some training first, where you can get used to pressing each letter for each category - for example, for the first minute you put positive words on E and negative on I, the second minute black people on E and white on I, and the next minute you have to associate black/positive with I and white/negative with E. Then the training switches letters, and so do the association categories.

What the test is trying to measure, is your reaction time for the association task, as well as the number of mistakes you make for what the task is asking. The hypothesis is that the longer you take to associate black people with positive words or the more mistakes you make in this category than when associating white people with positive words, there probably is some level of implicit racial prejudice there. The fact that the letters and tasks switch, controls for individuals finding it easy to just press one letter better than the other, or not being as used to associating the words with one letter over the other.

So, does a result of associating black people with negative words mean I'm racist? The test doesn't actually measure racist behaviours and attitudes. It measures something deeper and much more hidden, which is associations. The test also isn't trying to call you a racist, but to give a starting point for everyone to think about where these prejudices might be coming from.

We are all products of the society we live in, and in society there are connotations that black isn't as "good" as white. This is a very simple argument, but it does strike very true to me. As a white person growing up in a predominantly white country, I didn't really know what my race was until kindergarten or so. This was also around the time that I was learning the colours, as well as implicit symbolism of colours, through fairytales. I remember being puzzled that I am "white", when I looked quite faded pink to me. I also remember white witches, or white magic being the good, kind sort, and black magic being the evil kind. At around that time I also learnt that the light will always beat the dark, and so on.

I also remember occasionally playing with black and white baby dolls at friends’ houses- I don’t remember any of the children being very keen to pick the black babies as opposed to the white ones. At some point I might have thought that this is due to familiarity with the skin colour, even though we mostly had darker hair and eyes, unlike the white dolls, but relatively pale skin, like the white dolls. However, after watching this (harrowing) video, I realised that it has a lot more to do with associations of black and white than I might have liked to think.

This is a replication of an experiment first made in the 1940s with Mexican children, now made with Italian children in 2016. Most children, regardless of their own skin colour, tended to associate the white doll with being a “good doll”, because it has “blue eyes”. It actually feels very raw to see children brand a baby doll “bad”, because it is darker. It feels even more upsetting when the black children say out loud that they look more like the doll that they thought was “bad”, and seeing the expression on their face as they say this. Granted, the video does have music on that is designed to evoke strong feelings, but perhaps strong feelings need to be evoked in this instance.

Is there anything we can do about all this then? This is just my suggestion. Take the implicit association test, and see whether you might automatically associate certain races with positive or negative words. Think about where these associations might be coming from. Think for yourself on whether these associations are something that you would like to reinforce, or challenge.

Sometimes, things that we learnt in our childhood stay with us in adulthood, and we might feel very loyal to them. For instance, the association of black with bad, and white with good, or even our parents and grandparents potential reluctance to trust foreign people living in our country, might carry some sort of nostalgia for a time that otherwise felt very happy and safe for us. If we choose to now challenge these associations and opinions, it doesn’t mean that we cannot honour our relationship with our ancestors or discard our happy childhood memories. However, it will mean that we can grow as humans, by taking a small step into joining the fight against racial prejudice and hate.

#blacklivesmatter #challengeprejudice #eliminateracism #smallsteps