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 others2 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.