Posts Tagged ‘color-blind’

My Unconscious Racial Bias

November 22, 2014

imagesI bridle when I hear talk of persistent American racism. Sure, there is some. And, yes, after-effects of past racial injustice. But real racists today are marginal to U.S. society. The bigger picture I see is one of astonishing social change over a very short period – my own lifetime.

I grew up in a society that was indeed very racist (no, not the South), and I imbibed that myself. It took a while for me to grow out of it.

Unknown-1Most whites today see themselves as non-racist. But admittedly, psychologically, true color-blindness is still almost unattainable. Mainly I think this is because race continues to be a focus of issues – Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc. – so we’re unavoidably conscious of it. And scientific studies have shown that even most whites who think they’re color-blind have different perceptual, neurological reactions to black and white faces.

I see myself as antiracist (the converse of racist). images-3Knowing too well our racial history gives me more sympathy than antipathy toward blacks. I like seeing them prospering, integrated into society. I try to practice personal affirmative action by treating blacks I encounter nicer than whites. On election night in 2008, even though I didn’t vote for Obama, I felt good for America’s blacks. When the result was declared, and TV showed a black woman jumping up and down, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I wanted to hug her. That still chokes me up (despite the disaster Obama has been). And see my post about the “great migration.”Unknown-2

Well give me an award.

So why, the other day, thumbing through the local paper, and glimpsing a photo of a black man and woman, did my brain have a little frisson of negative feeling? Little, fleeting, but definite and discernable. Whoa, I said to myself, What was that? Would I too, after all, flunk one of those scientific tests for unconscious racial bias?

Now, I know I react negatively when seeing anyone – black or white – who, for one reason or another, seems to display some unpleasant characteristic. That’s merely natural. But that didn’t apply here. The black man and woman were well-dressed, serious professional-looking people, seemingly the kind of black success I celebrate.

Tho photo (John Carl D'Annibale, Times Union)

The photo (John Carl D’Annibale, Times Union)

Or do I, really? Was my subconscious mind making a different judgment?

Well, I’ve thought about it, and here’s my conclusion. I think my negative brain frisson was political, not racial. Though I didn’t know the pair were state legislators till I later read the caption, the photo was evocative of such a political context, and I could have guessed it. Black politicians in New York are overwhelmingly Democrats, and my blog readers know my opinion of New York’s Democratic political establishment. That’s what I think my brain saw, and reacted against, in the quick glimpse of the photo – not race, but politics.

images-1Or am I just whitewashing myself? Maybe it isn’t that simple. Certainly race and politics are inextricably entwined. I do welcome black political involvement – but not when black politicians divisively play the race card. I see that too often (one black local pol in Albany was a repeat offender). Al Sharpton’s ubiquity doesn’t help. The guilty shouldn’t tar the innocent; but maybe the unconscious isn’t given to such fine discriminations. If not biased against blacks in general, perhaps I do have a reflex bias against black Democratic politicians.

Last night we watched a documentary about the comet landing; a woman scientist was speaking. And when I registered that she was black, I perceived in myself another frisson, this time a positive one.

Now that’s more like it, I told myself.

 

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