Modern Times: Confessions of an ex-racist

Are you a racist? no? what makes you so sure? to put it differently, what would you do if you discovered that your attitudes to other people contained, in fact, elements of racism? How would you deal with such a revelation? Corin Faife thought his attitude to race was unblemished, then he took a test...

Columns, Modern Times - Posted on Tuesday, August 17, 2010 11:02 - 14 Comments

Tags:
Share

By Corin Faife

Last week I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’m no longer racist. As you’d imagine, the news came as a great relief, and it’s a story I’d like to retell here.

I’m an open-minded, well-educated adult, born to liberal parents and of mixed ethnic heritage. I’ve been a fan of reggae since childhood when our house would ring to the sound of my dad’s Bob Marley collection, and I find the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King inspiring. In short, there should be no part of my brain that, skin-colour-wise, is biased one way or another.

So I thought until a few years ago I discovered the Implicit Association Test. Devised by a Harvard research team, the IAT aims to be an indicative measure not of rational beliefs but of subconscious preference. The test candidate first sorts African-American and European-American faces from each other, then groups faces of the same race with words which represent either positive or negative emotions. The speed of the process is timed to the micro-second, and in theory we should find it easier – and therefore quicker – to group together concepts which are linked in our mind than those we feel are disparate or in opposition.

To my shame, as I took the test I realised it seemed much harder to group black faces with positive words than it did white. Sure enough, by the time I’d clicked my way to the end the algorithm had judged me to have a strong automatic preference for white people over black people. I was, in effect, a bit racist.

A period of turmoil, despair and soul-searching ensued. OK, maybe something of an exaggeration, but the knowledge made me very uneasy, particularly as I thought there might be some truth in it. The problem wasn’t who I was but where I was: at the time my hometown of Norwich, a city which has remained stubbornly homogenous whilst settlements of comparable size became ethnically diverse. From birth to 18 years of age my social brain dealt almost entirely with Caucasians, but the likelihood is that during that time my subconscious made other associations based on images gleaned from news, film, music and other fields replete with negative and stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities.

So far, so bad. But the story changed when recently I was spurred to retake the IAT. Again I sat through the process of sorting black and white faces, good and bad words. And this time? The strong preference towards European-American had vanished, replaced by a moderate preference for African-American.

So what had changed?

Primarily the fact that my work at a youth project in multicultural Nottingham has put me in the midst of widely diverse team, giving enough direct exposure to counter many times over a bias acquired through mediated image. To speculate, maybe the preference in the other direction is down to the fact that my friends and colleagues of African-Caribbean descent are disproportionately positive role models, all of them talented, creative and committed to community action and social improvement.

All of which is good news for me of course, but is there a broader moral? Firstly I’d stress that implicit associations are tricky things, governed by parts of our brain not ruled by logic and difficult to override. To admit that you hold prejudices is a taboo for the liberal-minded citizen, even more so when you recognise them as such but still can’t shake your gut reaction, but the fact is that for an individual to unconsciously absorb the prejudices that pervade his or her society is understandable, to some extent natural – and refusing to acknowledge this is a barrier to tackling it.

The difficulty of shedding implicit assumptions doesn’t negate our responsibility to do so, but I’d rather see an honest conversation about the how and why of it all: you’d think from a lot of anti-racism rhetoric that it’s just those with low education and media literacy that are susceptible to picking up prejudice from poisonous tabloid headlines, but the truth is a lot more insidious than that. Try taking an IAT, and you might be surprised at what you find.

Corin Faife is a writer and activist. His ‘Modern Times’ column appears every Tuesday.

Share

14 Comments

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Musab
Aug 17, 2010 16:05

Very thought-provoking article which covers interesting ground. In the spirit of Ceasefire debate and discussion, I do have some disagreements with you though:

Firstly, you accept at face value the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which has long been subject to a range of scientific criticism. Try it out – do the test a few times, and the likelihood is you’ll get very different results every time. This is because it’s much more likely that the test just assesses your reactions to the images at one particular time rather than uncovering any deep aspect of your subconscious. See, for more details: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/18/science/18tier.html?_r=1. There’s a lot of criticism already on the web on the IAT so I thought you could have mentioned some of it.

Secondly, and much more importantly, your article implicitly accepts the dominant view of racism as a kind of minor psychological glitch for white people who would be able to eliminate in one fell swoop the scourge of racial discrimination if only they could teach themselves to see everyone as equals. (I know you don’t think this but I thought the article didn’t really challenge it). I don’t think this is the consensus view amongst informed scholars and anti-racism campaigners today who see racism as primarily structural and embdedded within economic, social and political realities, crucially linked to the development of the European state system and the division of the world into, roughly, ‘first’ and ‘third’.

In other words: even if someone were to pass the IAT with flying colours, and even if that test were actually reliable, this would tell us virtually nothing about their ‘objective’ position on racism. The point is that Europeans and those descended from Europeans continue to benefit from the racist subjugation of other peoples. Whether they understand this subconsciously or not is somewhat beside the point. Unless we care more about assauging the guilt of Europeans than about addressing actually-existing racism.

I don’t think we really disagree on this but I thought it was worth pointing out as I do find the treatment of racism as primarily a white psychological problem extremely problematic and, unfortunately, still prevalent today.

Raj
Aug 17, 2010 16:37

This was an excellent reply, Musab. Its odd that white people seem to talk about racism as if they are the only ones that are racist or can be racist. You know other people (possibly deemed further down the social hierarchy) can be racist too – even about *shock horror* white people. I know – it doesnt make any sense. How can you be racist about people better than you? This is the kind of paradigm that I always see reported in the news and in professional journalism and I am a little bit sick of it. Its offensive. For the record, I don’t believe we can easily address the deep-rooted psychological racism that the Implicit Association Test is trying to highlight. We can address the social and economic racism that occurs in society. If for biological reasons I am better at identifying asian faces (which I am), how I am supposed to change that and why should I. This is a recognised psychological phenomena, but is it racist? Its relevant for my life. Me and my family are asian and so the skill to recognise asian faces and presumably see them positively is useful for me and my family. Am I racist because I am biologically hardwired to work this way for evolutionary reasons? In the grand scheme of things, I don’t believe the implicit associations that we make subconsciously are easily changed (possibly never changed) and not of great importance because they may serve a useful function for us as humans. However, the social and economic and political racism that we can actually change, and should report and be disgusted by, goes by reported less.
Apologies – I am not as good a writer as Masub above.

Sam
Aug 17, 2010 20:09

“In other words: even if someone were to pass the IAT with flying colours, and even if that test were actually reliable, this would tell us virtually nothing about their ‘objective’* position on racism.”

That’s crushing: The individual can change their views but they are still just the same as their society, or in this context people. So, in many ways this renders an attitude to race irrelevant and makes a white with non discriminatory attitudes as racist as Nick Griffin because objectively they live in the same socio-political-economical structure.

*practical?

Mik
Aug 18, 2010 10:14

“That’s crushing: The individual can change their views but they are still just the same as their society, or in this context people. So, in many ways this renders an attitude to race irrelevant and makes a white with non discriminatory attitudes as racist as Nick Griffin because objectively they live in the same socio-political-economical structure.”

I’m not sure that’s exactly what Musab was suggesting, but it is true that attitudes towards race usually say very little about how much people actually benefit from racial privilege. There are plenty of do-gooding liberals around who are terribly nice to black people whilst their homes are filled with the products of the slave labour of darker skinned people. They might not have racist attitudes in their day to day interactions with black people but they certainly profit from the neo-colonial system. Likewise there were slave owners renowned for their generosity towards the slaves they’d subjugated but we would hesitate to clear them of the charge of racism today.

I suppose I’d say there are two dimensions of racism identified here – attitudes towards people of other races, which may or may not be correctly identified by the IAT (and as a former psychologist myself, I’m sceptical!) and racial socio-economic privilege, which clearly is not measured by the IAT. They might even be separable as different levels of consciousness about race. Clearly there IS a racist attitude involved in accepting a world system that relies on the subjugation of the peoples of the global south, however deeply buried in a person’s subconscious that might be.

Musab
Aug 18, 2010 10:43

I completely agree with Mik, above, regarding the two dimensions to racism.

Sam, I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you misunderstood my position. You get this problem as soon as you look at any structural problem — it’s pretty similar with class, for example, in the sense that even if someone from a privileged class background is not actually discriminatory or classist in their everyday attitudes, they can nevertheless benefit from structural class inequality.

So it does matter if the individual changes their views, and it is better for someone not to have racist attitudes, of course, but — crucially — this does not in itself have much effect (if any) on structural racism. As with Mik’s examples above, a white slaveowner might have decided that all human beings were equal (and plenty of them professed to believe this). But how seriously would we take this expression while they continued to own slaves?

The key issue I had with the article was the neglecting of structural racism in favour of simply examining personal attitudes to race: I concentrated on the former in my comment in response to its absence from the article. (Not that it’s Corin’s fault of course, this is one of those huge topics that you can’t deal with in a column to everyone’s satisfaction!)

Sam
Aug 18, 2010 14:59

Yes, yes, a good slave is a happy slave, it makes economic sense. It bothers me slightly that you feel the need to use this as an example. I’d like something contemporary to sort of get a stronger hold on what you mean. When you talk of the oxymoronically terribly nice libs (both black and white?) who have houses full of products of slave labour, I don’t know what these products are precisely. I do suspect, however, a contemporary equivalent is a little less clear than the black slave/white slave owner binary in that those who benefit in a modern context are simply those who have money.

Sam
Aug 18, 2010 15:01

*excuse my gross use of simply at the end, predominantly would be more apt.

Sam
Aug 18, 2010 15:04

fundamentally actually

Musab
Aug 18, 2010 15:34

As far as I understand your post, the central idea seems to be — in response to a discussion on structural racism — “those who benefit in a modern context are simply those who have money” and liberals are “both black and white.”

There are only two tenable positions here: structural racism exists, or it doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist, than the fact that in 2002 there were more African Caribbean entrants to prison (over 11,500) than there were to UK universities (8,000), and the fact that brown and black people in the UK are less than 10% of the population but almost 27% of the prison population, must be down to genetic inferiority.*

If structural racism exists, then “those who benefit in a modern context” aren’t “simply those who have money”, but those who are (also) priviledged by other factors, including race. It’s a very basic and uncontroversial point.

When dealing with issues of class, race, sex, etc., the lines aren’t clear — many white people are poor, some black and brown people are rich. But if you are born black or brown on this planet you are much more likely to be poor, hungry, overworked, underpaid, in prison, subject to violence, and so on. That’s not just about money.


* I pick these examples at random as I happen to be reading a report on this by the Prison Reform Trust, but there are thousands of others that could be used.

Sam
Aug 18, 2010 16:17

although I amended simply and you journalistically chose to use it regardless, I can appreciate that. however, it is another case of the anthropological being economic

Sam
Aug 19, 2010 2:57

I’ve been thinking today a lot about ‘passing’, and subsequently think I understand a bit more about what you are getting at. The racial advantages given to those of what be called white standing far outreaching those of non white standing regardless of economic circumstances.

Is this process of ‘passing’ still practiced? Certainly in subtle ways some would argue it is very prescient, in what some call ‘gorification’, but do people out and out deny their racial background (if they are able) as much anymore?

Mik
Aug 19, 2010 10:33

“When you talk of the oxymoronically terribly nice libs (both black and white?) who have houses full of products of slave labour, I don’t know what these products are precisely. ”

Much of the food we eat, the electronic items we buy, the minerals used in our electronic gadgets, the clothes we wear… in short most consumer products are manufactured/extracted/farmed where labour/production costs are cheapest i.e. where exploitation is least fettered. The African peasants, Chinese and Bangladeshi sweatshop workers and Congolese miners are not (for the most part) technically slaves but they are as near to it as modern economics permits. The fact that these modern slaves are non-white is no accident but rather the result of a continuation of colonialism by neoliberal means. Yes – it is about who has capital and who doesn’t, and the sources of that capital have largely been plundered from the global south using racist colonial pretexts.

Raj
Aug 19, 2010 12:15

“Is this process of ‘passing’ still practiced? Certainly in subtle ways some would argue it is very prescient, in what some call ‘gorification’, but do people out and out deny their racial background (if they are able) as much anymore?”

This is a very odd statement to make. Really? Where on earth have you lived that this could possibly be true, because I have never been there!

Also, Sam your argument reads as someone arguing for the sake of it, just to be contrary and with no underlying logic – except to argue semantics – which is irrelevant to racism and slightly insulting as if racism means nothing to you emotionally.

Sam
Aug 19, 2010 16:08

Mik, thanks for going into a bit more detail. Originally I was thinking that money transcends all in this area but I’m starting to wonder.

Raj, yes, you’re right, my argument has been off the mark, contentious and with no underlying logic. But it hasn’t been fixed. Indeed, my thoughts do get reassessed through discussion and arguement on such matters and I now have a clearer sense of the individual’s accountability to the structural imbalances rather than solely to their own psychology. I’ve acquired an understanding how not thinking racist is not the the same as not living racist.
In regards to what you quoted, I was rather haphazardly wondering whether people do still try to pass themselves off as white, more of a musing than question. For me the motivations behind doing such a thing encapsulate what Musab was explaining about the privileges of being white. It was not massively uncommon in the States late 19th century to early 20th century- Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ is a good book on the subject.

Leave a Reply

Comment

 

More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture