August 26, 2008

Everybody is racist

The Summer 2008 of Greater Good magazine asks the question “Are we born racist?” In an article titled “Look Twice,” Susan T. Fiske provides an answer: Most people think they’re less biased than average. But just as we can’t all be better than average, we can’t all be less prejudiced than average. Although the message—and the success so far—of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign suggests an America that is moving past traditional racial divisions and prejudices, it’s probably safe to assume that all of us harbor more biases than we think.

Science suggests that most of us don’t even know the half of it. A 20-year eruption of research from the field of “social neuroscience” reveals exactly how automatically and unconsciously prejudice operates. As members of a society with egalitarian ideals, most Americans have good intentions. But new research suggests our brains and our impulses all too often betray us. That’s the bad news.

But here’s the good news: More recent research shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and social circumstances. While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamiliar to us, it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices. Doing so requires more than just good intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge stereotypes and get people to work together across group lines. But a vital first step is learning about the biological and psychological roots of prejudice.

Modern prejudice

Here’s the first thing to understand: Modern prejudice is not your grandparents’ prejudice.

Old-fashioned racism and sexism were known quantities because people would mostly say what they thought. Blacks were lazy; Jews were sly; women were either dumb or bitchy. Modern equivalents continue, of course—look at current portrayals of Mexican immigrants as criminals (when, in fact, crime rates in Latino neighborhoods are lower than those of other ethnic groups at comparable socioeconomic levels). Most estimates suggest such blatant and wrongheaded bigotry persists among only 10 percent of citizens in modern democracies. Blatant bias does spawn hate crimes, but these are fortunately rare (though not rare enough). At the very least, we can identify the barefaced bigots.

Our own prejudice—and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice, if we don’t address it—takes a more subtle, unexamined form. Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it.
Racialicious correspondent Tami responds to this piece:See, this is why I am growing ever more weary of the “Race is just a social construct, why are we even talking about it?” crowd, as well as the “I don’t see race” folks. Race is indeed a social construct, but physical and cultural differences, and the biased ways that people react to them–that’s real. If we refuse to acknowledge and embrace both our similarities and differences, then how will we ever neutralize negative and biased reactions to those differences? You may call me an African American or ignore my ethnic heritage and say I am simply a human being. Both things are true. But at the end of the day, I am a brown person with curly/kinky hair, broad facial features and some specific cultural behaviors, living in an environment of people with white skin, straight hair, narrow facial features and other specific cultural behaviors. I am judged by the majority for my minority characteristics–my differences. (And I judge, too.) Not calling those differences race does not solve the problem.

Oh, and you say you don’t see race? That’s B.S. You do. We all do. Our brains are hardwired to seek out those differences. It’s what you do after you see race that makes all the difference.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Highlights of the US Report to the UN on Racism.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Wow, some EuroMen realize that their original territorial drives are the basis of their racism. They competed with other forms of mankind, defeated them, and absorbed them. Thus, Neanderthal Man and Cro-Magnon Man still live in their ranks. BUT -- Native Americans were not absorbed by EuroMan, and that should explain why Natives are the least of their considerations now that they own these continents. We still are here, but they try to ignore us...
All Best
Russ Bates