Implicit vs. Overt Racism – Are We All a Little Racist?

black kid shining white man's shoes

I hesitate to say “there are two types of racists out there,” but there are two types of racism. One is the blatant racism that you hear from people who just have a misguided sense of superiority with their own race; another is the implicit bias people have when making perceptions of people based on race.

A great new episode from Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” looked at implicit racism from a psychosocial perspective, and it was a very interesting conversation. At one point they liken the implicit nature of such racism to the susceptibility of advertisements. That is, we are influenced without our awareness by the multitudes of advertisements that lead us to make purchases that otherwise would not be made. If advertisements influence our perceptions, then surely the many movies and TV shows which show people a certain way will influence us as well.

The guests seem to want to say “implicit bias” rather than “implicit racism,” perhaps as a way to take out some of the sting out of what may in fact be racism. The issue here is that even “good people” can perpetuate some of the most outrageous stereotypes or make some of the most unfair assumptions. For example, whenever stop-and-frisk laws are studied in America, we inevitably find that the vast majority of people being stopped and frisked are black and latino.

In New York, since the beginning of this millennium, reports found that every year almost 90% of the people stopped – nine out of ten people – were not white. I’m sure there are many overtly racist police in New York, but what’s more likely is that this is a manifestation of the racist culture of the country itself.

Another example is the research into getting jobs. As one guest in the video – Harvard University professor David Williams – mentions, research shows that it’s easier for a white male with a criminal record to get a job than a black male with no criminal record. This is the case even when the resumes are exactly the same. But as Williams notes, the issue of racism isn’t so clear-cut in that America is just a place where white people target black people. Implicit racism against black people can of course be seen from white people, but it can also be seen from non-white people, and even from black people themselves. This is the same kind of thing we see in many studies of gender equality – women are implicitly discriminated against, but sometimes by other women.

The guest in the studio is Tim Wise, author of “White Like Me,” a great book about white privilege. His poignant anecdotes and clear explanations are fascinating and mind-blowing.

I would love to see some research done on implicit racism in Japan, but I’m not sure such a study has ever been done here. I suspect there are perceptual biases, especially among rural Japanese people who watch a lot of hollywood movies. That is, the Japanese populations who don’t get much real-life exposure to non-Japanese people, and whose knowledge of them would mostly be based on violent movies that try to entertain rather than inform.

So now the big question: What can be done about it? Like alcoholism, admitting there is a problem is the first step. If people aren’t even aware of their biases, they are more likely to act upon them. It’s important to know that through our popular culture and education, we are all susceptible to such biases to some extent.

In fact, you can tell that the lack of acceptance of such bias makes it clear that implicit racism exists. This can be seen in recent pop culture in America by TV host Paula Deen, who said that she believes the South – where they owned African slaves – was actually less racist than their Northern counterparts – who fought a civil war in order to free the slaves – for a reason that is so profoundly idiotic that I can’t actually bring myself to write it.

Therefore, Tim Wise believes that the best way to get rid of implicit biases is to make institutional and legal reforms that make people acknowledge them. For example, requiring employers to read a brief essay on such biases before beginning job interviews. He mentions in one study, a judge told a mock jury about such biases before a trial, and another mock jury saw the exact same evidence, but the two groups had very different experiences. The jury who were not told about implicit biases – and therefore did not introspect on their own personal potential biases – were not only more likely to convict, but took less time to make such a decision.

Williams also mentions that another important point about solving this problem is by considering the people we meet not as the sum of their demographic categories – such as race, gender, and age – but as individuals. We have a tendency to do this because we’re busy and social people who generally don’t have or at least take the time to get to know everyone we meet. He emphasizes that this is possible, but it takes time, effort, and commitment.

There are many online implicit bias tests, but you can take one on race or another on gender at the Understanding Prejudice website here. But keep in mind that if biases are revealed, it does not necessarily measure prejudice – it may just be a reflection of in-group vs. out-group associations.

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2 Responses to Implicit vs. Overt Racism – Are We All a Little Racist?

  1. Unky Rob says:

    Well hi there Ryo.

    Studies I’ve read show that our implicit biases can be so “subconscious” that even the hiring process is skewed in favour of the tall and “good looking” (however that is defined by societal norms). A “good looking” man or woman is more likely to be hired, and more likely to move up in an organization than um, well, you know. Also the “tall, dark and handsome” are more likely to be perceived as competent and can waltz through life with relative ease in comparison to, um, you know, the rest of us.

  2. Andrew says:

    Good article, I enjoyed taking part in the bias test.

    Long time since a new articles been posted, are you still working on that Lucid Dream one?

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