If you are a white person who grew up in the United States, you are very likely racist. This does not mean that you are a bad person, or that you treat people of color badly, or even that you believe, consciously, you are better than dark-skinned people. You are probably a lovely person. You probably donate to charity and bring food to sick neighbors and adopt puppies.
But from an explosion of research beginning in the 1990s, we now know that the human brain uses stereotypes without our awareness or consent. Our brains want to ascertain, as quickly as possible, whether new individuals are “safe” or “like me” or “in my tribe.” It uses stereotypes as a kind of shortcut. We are all susceptible to these judgments, and because they are so fast, a learned stereotype is very difficult to avoid.
The majority of white people who take the implicit association test (IAT) for racial bias do demonstrate biases against dark-skinned people. In a 2007 study of over 2.5 million IAT responses, University of Virginia psychology professor Brian Nosek and colleagues reported that 68% of participants demonstrated negative implicit attitudes toward black people, dark skin, and black children. A 2010 follow-up study headed by Nosek revealed that despite the US election of its first black president, little had changed.
This is not to say that personal beliefs exert no influence. It’s just that our brains have to override our initial responses, which requires both time and cognitive capacity. When we are afraid or stressed, stereotypes reign. Our speech and behavior, therefore, depend on how well our conscious brain inhibits automatic stereotyped responses. Our brains love to form and use stereotypes, and in the US, if you are a white person, you almost certainly carry negative stereotypes against people of color.
That’s because people in the United States are surrounded by messages of white as default, white as safe, white as best. And we internalize those messages. We pick up the signals all around us, starting as young children, often without our knowledge.
Those signals are in the picture of the white police officer in uniform next to the picture of the unarmed black man he shot looking scruffy and dangerous. They are in the viral media coverage of the black woman slapping her son instead of the one performing surgery on someone else’s child.
Good guys ride white horses, and wear white shirts. Bad guys wear dark clothing and drive black cars. White witches are the ones you want to find in the woods. Black witches, of course, have black cats, which are bad luck. In the world of computer security, black hats are the malicious hackers and white hats are the heroes. There are white knights, black hearts, white wedding dresses, and black markets. The Christian devil is the “prince of darkness.” Jesus is often depicted in robes of pure white.
There is more here than anecdote. In 2009, two Virginia psychologists using a test similar to the IAT found that people associate light-colored words with morality and dark-colored words with immorality. The pair published their results in a paper titled, “The Color of Sin: White and Black are Perceptual Symbols of Moral Purity and Pollution.” That’s right. Purity and pollution.
We want to not be racist. We want to not believe that people who look different are different. It’s just that all around us we hear whispers that they are. According to Nayeli Chavez, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, we just can’t avoid it.
“I think that stops a lot of people from growing, thinking ‘I’m not racist, I don’t have racist beliefs,’ because it’s impossible…,” Chavez told Quartz. “You have to be from a different planet not to be racist and white in this country.” Our conscious brains say one thing, but our sweaty palms say another.
“Race always matters,” Hector Adames, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Chicago school told Quartz. Why is that? Chavez answers, “Race always matters because it was established as the defining feature of who was human and who was not human…Race has shaped the history of every individual who has set foot in this country.”
Studies have found that the human brain shows heightened responses in sensory and emotional areas when we observe others in pain (a likely marker of empathy), but not so much when the person in pain is a different race. We literally do not feel the pain of others.
Last year, sociology researchers Aliya Saperstein, Andrew Penner, and Jessica Kizer published a longitudinal analysis showing that that once someone is arrested, even once, that person is more likely to be classified as black rather than white or Asian.
In a follow-up paper published this year, Penner and Saperstein find, “the odds of arrest are nearly three times higher for people who were classified by others as black, even if they did not identify themselves as black.” So an arrest makes people appear more black, and people who appear more black are more likely to get arrested.
The effects of implicit racial bias are everywhere. Research has shown that biases negatively affect quality of healthcare, mentorship, employment opportunities, purchase prices, political representation, housing, criminal policy, judicial decisions, and more.
So fellow white Americans, what are we to do? We are racist. Now what?
Patricia Devine, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has proposed that implicit racial biases are like a habit, and like any habit, change requires a series of deliberate steps. Most importantly, according her 2012 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we can change.
It’s a three step process: Become aware of our bias. Develop concern about our bias’s consequences. And finally, learn to replace biased automatic responses with those that more closely match our beliefs.
Here’s how to do it: First, if you don’t believe that you are racist, go take the IAT test. The IAT has its critics, but researchers continue to use it as a definitive test of implicit bias. Now that you have some idea of how racist you are, you are aware. Hopefully, if you are reading this, you are already concerned.
Now, how do we replace those responses and reduce our bias? Science offers practical advice.
Overwhelmingly, studies emphasize the need to place ourselves among people of other races. Remember that paper reporting that our brains don’t respond to the pain of different-race people? Another analysis published this year by neuroscientists and psychologists in the journal Cortex found that people’s brains begin to show more empathetic responses as they gain more experience with individuals of other races.
Chavez recommends, “Connect with people of color that are healthy in their ethnic identity.” In other words, don’t go looking for people whose ideas align with yours. Find someone who will make you grow. “Put yourself as a white person in a situation where you experience discomfort, but you are willing to listen to the experiences of others.”
Experience the lives of people of color, not as a savior, but in the terms of the community. Adames stresses that self-improvement requires work, “You need to be listening and paying attention to what kind of thoughts you are having.” Your automatic thoughts and body cues will help you tune into your implicit bias.
Research also reports benefits from imagining ourselves as black or other-race members. In studies, participants’ IAT test scores improved after they played video games in dark-skinned avatars, mimicked the movements of dark-skinned people, or temporarily tricked their brains into thinking dark-skinned limbs were part of their bodies.
You can argue that acknowledging race and our own biases further divides us into in-groups and out-groups. That we should try to be “colorblind.” If only we keep children ignorant of bias, it will disappear.
The proposition is enticing, which is perhaps why “colorblindness” has become a popular approach for white American parents. The problem is, it seems not to work. Children notice the faces around them whether we talk about them or not. A 2012 study of 84 “colorblind” European American mothers and their preschool children found little connection between the views of the parent and her child. Much more predictive of the child’s racial attitudes was the number of the mother’s other-race friends.
We want not to be racist. Science says we are. We want race not to matter. Science says it does.
The solution is simply to admit it. And then we must to listen and pay attention.
We need to acknowledge that our race is white, that we are racist, and that our racial biases hurt others. We are racist. Now let’s get to work.
Follow Jenny on Twitter at @JRMorber.