Intrinsic racism and the strength of our subconscious associations

The Collins English Dictionary defines racism as:

1 the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
2 abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief
In a civilised world most people would like to think that they are not racist, and outwardly act with respect towards people of different races. Would America have elected their first black president if this was not the case? Research at Harvard university is showing that subconsciously there is a different story whether we like it or not.
Science has tended to confirm that race is a cultural construct, and there are no scientific criteria to determine race. Despite our obvious differences we are all extremely similar biologically, and to think of one race as superior to another, such as the argument that white people have intrinsically superior intelligence made by Charles Murray in ‘The Bell Curve‘, is clearly misguided. In fact in many circumstances use of the word race is being replaced with the equally ambiguous term ethnicity, as an indicator of the ancestry of a given individual.
Whether we like it or not our subconscious controls our intrinsic attitudes towards others.  Without conscious influence we make snap decisions, especially about other people, using a combination of learned responses, non-verbal cues and body language. Interviews and speed dating are perfect examples of how we form an impression of people within moments of meeting them.
These behaviours are the subject of a lot of research, and an interesting tool has been developed by Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banajai and Brian Nosek that shows the links our minds make. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) determines the connections and mental associations that we have made between pairs of ideas. The test works by putting two words or ideas together with words synonymous with good or bad, and registering the time taken to place an image or word into one of the two categories. Try it out for yourself here but be prepared for some uncomfortable results.
Full disclosure, I have a moderate automatic preference for Caucasians, which surprised me somewhat. I don’t consider myself to be racist, and although I don’t know many people of different ethnicities, I don’t think of the friends I have of other ethnicities any differently than the white friends I have. Intrinsically, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Even as I completed the test I felt a sense of shame at the ‘wrong’ answers I gave.
The prodominantly white media may have to take some of the blame for this, for reinforcing negative stereotypes about different races, with sensationalist stories, however the good news is that with more exposure to positive examples of other races or cultures this bias can be overcome. President Obama has recieved almost unilateral support with a message of hope and change, showing that the potential of any race for good is there, we just need more examples to help break free of these associations.

3 thoughts on “Intrinsic racism and the strength of our subconscious associations

  1. Ado

    Hey, I’m about to take some of the tests and will report back on my results.

    Further to your article however, I think the fact that you “felt shame” as you were giving some answers speaks volumes on this topic, for you and us all.

    I’m afraid (to me) prejudice seems to be an inbuilt feature of the human brain, in the past it helped us make snap decisions or recognise threatening situations as (or even before) they arose. However, in today’s world it can have a very negative impact as we subconsciously use our “experiences” to draw immediate conclusions. The problem being that these “experiences” are usually things we have been told in the news or (and perhaps more often) in popular culture.

    I think that the fact you felt shame for some of your answers shows that you are aware that your natural instinct is something that can not and should not always be relied upon and that your concious mind (i.e. you) don’t agree with the messages you’re being sent.

    The key is whether you take the easy route and give in to your subconscious (letting your prejudice rule over you) or your decide to make an open minded concious decision about people. The former are the bigots, the latter are most certainly not. Making the effort to break free from this programming, succeed or fail, is the difference.


  2. Ado

    Weird, apparently I have “a moderate automatic preference for African American compared to European American”.

    Ok, so this is obviously not that scientific but is completely not what I expected, especially after my earlier comment.

    Thinking back though, seeing the eyes of white Americans did make me think of serial killers. Hmmmm…..


  3. Owen

    Your data suggest no difference in your automatic preferences for White people vs. Black people

    Your data suggests a moderate automatic preference for John McCain over Barack Obama


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