Everyone is a little racist

Nick Adeyi, Sidwell Friends '15

The psychology behind racism and how our minds create unconscious bias. (Published: 2015)

While I sincerely doubt that Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the brains behind the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q, had cognitive neuroscience in mind when they were writing their raunchy parable about the complexities of entering adulthood, most cognitive scientists would likely stand by the title of one the musical’s hit songs: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. In discussions on racism we usually focus on explicit bias, that is prejudices that are outspoken, conscious beliefs. In light of the swarm of media attention in the past few years on the role of racial bias in police interactions, particularly vis-à-vis black men, an examination of more subversive forms of bias seems necessary.

Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist at Harvard University, has been studying how the human brain makes subconscious connections between concepts in an effort to shine light on how our brains create bias. Along with Anthony Greenwald, a social psychologist at the University of Washington, Banaji has employed a series of test designed to measure how easily people associate certain images or concepts with positive or negative words. These metrics, known as Implicit Association Tests (IAT), require participants to sort images as quickly as they possibly can while minimizing errors. By not allowing test-takers time to deliberate, Banaji and Greenwald’s tests tap into the parts of the brain that make subconscious, automatic decisions. When Greenwald introduced images and words linked to race and ethnicity “participants’ automatic reactions did not match the attitudes they held.” Across the board, participants were uncomfortable with the results they produced; despite believing themselves to be unbiased towards any single racial group or ethnicity, the tests showed that their subconscious more readily associated white faces with positive words and black faces with negative words. In response to doubts of the scientific validity of IAT’s, both researchers agreed after a review of dozens of their studies that the test predicted, “judgement, behavior, and physiological reactions linked to stereotyping and prejudice better than expressed attitudes could.” In short, even if we believe ourselves to be egalitarian and completely unbiased, we very likely still make subconscious judgments and associations without even knowing it. In the context of race, the existence of these implicit biases helps to explain why employers are statistically more likely to employ someone with a ‘white’ name over an applicant with a ‘black’ name, even if they have identical résumés. These subconscious associations also explain why police officers are more likely to assume that a black suspect is reaching for a gun instead of say, a wallet. In the heat of the moment, the human brain relies more on relatively automated processes such as muscle memory, including those implicit biases that are stored in our subconscious. The question then, is how these biases are formed and more importantly how they can be reshaped to a more egalitarian purpose.

To a certain extent, the existence of these implicit biases makes sense. As animals, we are biologically programmed to make associations and classifications. In psychology, these classifications are known as ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’. These groups denote classifications through which people associate themselves, and those they use to classify others. Even without knowledge of psychology, ingroup-outgroup classification makes sense: we’re more comfortable with people or things we view as close to us, and are equally wary of people or things we view as foreign or unfamiliar. The issue, again, is that many of these classifications are not made consciously, and as a result we may behave in certain ways


towards certain groups of people without intentionally doing so. Rachael Murphy, a neuroscience student at Boston University, explains that once ingroups and outgroups are formed in our subconscious, “confirmation biases kick in and begin to look for information that supports our views, and selectively ignore everything which doesn’t.” The danger here is again an implicit one. Even if someone believes that they see all people as one group (or at least do not harbor any discriminatory thoughts about other groups), they likely have made subconscious classifications that can affect their outward behavior towards said groups. Daniel Kelly and Erica Roedder, researchers at Purdue University and NYU respectively, explore whether the existence of implicit biases, even in situations where they might be perceived as rational, presents a moral issue. That is, to what extent do we differentiate between rational behavior and moral behavior? If an action results in the unnecessary discrimination towards a particular group or individual insofar as that action might be perceived as rational, then it is immoral and should not be taken now matter how much sense it appears to make. Kelly and Roedder cite our implicit biases as examples of how “psychological science shows our reasoning capacities to be impaired, and where we have no introspective access to our own impairment.”

Using cognitive science to understand how racial biases form allows us to better understand where many of the more subtle forms of racism come from. That is not to say that someone who harbors implicit biases is racist: by all accounts, we all make our own subconscious associations and classifications, whether or not we identify with them, act on them, or are even aware (or believe in) their existence. The crucial aspect of this research is to use this science to create an environment in which people naturally create more positive classifications and associations. When we have reached the point where we no longer automatically associate young black men with violence or stereotypically black names with a lack of work ethic, then this research will have been put to good purpose. However, simply acknowledging that many of us harbor beliefs that we are not even aware of is a good first step.