Billy Martin (docbrite) wrote,
Billy Martin
docbrite

Implicit Association Test Thoughts

I'm reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I always find interesting. In Chapter 3 he discusses unconscious biases as measured by Implicit Association Tests (IATs). You can take a bunch of different IATs at http://www.implicit.harvard.edu , but the one Gladwell describes in most detail is the Race IAT:

I've taken the Race IAT on many occasions, and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your attitudes toward blacks and whites are. I answered, as I am sure most of you would, that I think of the races as equal. Then comes the test.

Basically, you have to sort black and white faces and positive/negative words into two categories, then sort them again paired with "good" or "bad" concepts. For instance, you have to sort words like hurt, evil, and glorious into the categories "European American or Good" or "African American or Bad," then reverse the pairings: "African American or Good" and "European American or Bad." Supposedly most test takers of either race take significantly longer to sort the second set of pairings because they are biased to associate African American and bad, even if they don't consciously feel that way. Malcolm Gladwell, who's half black, was mortified to learn that he had "a moderate automatic preference for whites." He comments:

[O]f the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good.

Well, I wondered. As far as I'm concerned, I don't live in North America. I live in a small northern outpost of the Caribbean that is, at most, a neglected protectorate of the United States. I am a white person living in a majority-black neighborhood and city. I find myself in way fewer all-white or mostly white environments here in New Orleans than in any other place I've ever lived or visited, except Jamaica and maybe London. Aside from Chris, most of the people I see and speak to on a daily basis are black. If I see white people in my neighborhood, it means potential disruption: volunteers (good/neutral) or lost tourists (neutral/bad). I'm pretty selective about the cultural messages I get: I watch no TV except sporting events (which have a large black demographic); I read the Times-Picayune (which has a significant black readership); many of our local political and cultural readers are black. I didn't feel I'd been inoculated with the white=good virus. And according to the Race IAT, I haven't: "Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for African American compared to European American." Which is exactly what I predicted before I took the test. Gladwell says you can't fool the test or answer to make yourself look better. I don't know about that. I do agree with the statement he makes a few pages later:

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means we can change our first impressions ... by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions. If you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way -- who would like to have a set of associations with blacks as positive as those that you have with whites -- it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren't betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort.

Which is true, obviously, of any minority you want to feel more comfortable with: people of other races, queer people, trans people. And which also makes me wonder: what would the Race IAT scores of black New Orleanians look like? How much would they vary by neighborhood, income and education level? Does white privilege allow me to romanticize somewhat, influencing my score? Chris and I can live in Central City more safely than many of our black neighbors: we're perceived as having money and influence because we're white, and to some degree, we do. The criminal element perceives us as too much trouble to mess with, and there's truth to that too. Black-on-black crime is by far the commonest type of violent crime in New Orleans. Other white people sometimes wonder how we "dare" to live here, but the truth is that our neighbors are probably in far more danger from each other than we are from any of them.
Tags: books, new orleans
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