For most of my life, I believed the theory that inspired the Avenue Q song, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
Then, wondering how racist I was, I took the implicit association test for race at Project Implicit. I was scared. Was I a little racist or a lot? I didn’t think I was extremely racist, but I had been raised “white” in a society that valued whiteness—maybe I was more racist than I suspected.
Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for African American compared to European American.
That startled me. But when Emma and a white friend from Florida also found they had implicit preferences for African Americans, I realized the notion everyone’s racist is nonsense. Our biases come from our reaction to our culture, not from the culture itself—every culture creates people who want to change it.
Project Implicit debunked the notion that we all favor our own race:
75-80% of self-identified Whites and Asians show an implicit preference for racial White relative to Black.
Saying a majority of whites and Asians have an implicit preference for their race is accurate, but as Project Implicit’s researchers note, an implicit preference may not have a practical effect on the way you treat people. More importantly, people may be less racist than Project Implicit implies. John Tierney’s “In Bias Test, Shades of Gray” notes:
In a series of scathing critiques, some psychologists have argued that this computerized tool, the Implicit Association Test, or I.A.T., has methodological problems and uses arbitrary classifications of bias. If Barack Obama’s victory seemed surprising, these critics say, it’s partly because social scientists helped create the false impression that three-quarters of whites are unconsciously biased against blacks.
Whether Project Implicit or its critics are right, anyone who thinks everyone’s racist has either fallen for an unscientific notion or is projecting on others their recognition of their own racism. Every test of racism that I’ve found rejects the idea that everyone’s racist.
In “Institutional Discrimination, Individual Racism, and Hurricane Katrina”, Kristin Henkel, John Dovidio, and Samuel Gaertner staged an emergency and found:
When white participants believed that they were the only witness [to an accident] they helped both white and black victims very frequently (over 85 percent of the time) and equivalently. There was no evidence of blatant racism. In contrast, when they thought there were other witnesses, they helped black victims only half as often as white victims (38 percent versus 75 percent).
“The Police Officer’s Dilemma” from Stereotyping & Prejudice Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago takes a hard approach to implicit preference. In a video shooter game, you must distinguish between people of different races. Some are innocent. Some hold guns. If you’re too slow to shoot, you’ll be killed. If you’re too fast, you’ll kill innocent people.
On my first try, I shot one or two more innocent dark people than pale ones—whether that’s statistically insignificant or my encounters with SJ warriors had made me a bit racist, I don’t know. The second time, I shot one or two more innocent pale folks than dark ones. I’m content with the result.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Project Implicit puts me among the large minority of white people with “a slight automatic preference for African American compared to European American.” I had a lot of reasons to prefer dark faces:
• As a boy in Florida during the civil rights struggle, my first understanding of race was that white people were wrong and black people were right. The white people around me fell into three categories, a small group that was viciously racist, a large group that was casually racist, and a small group that was working to end what W.E.B. Du Bois called white skin privilege. Those of us in the last group were called race traitors and nigger lovers. The names we were given said we were not properly “white.” The people who tried to make us conform, the adults who threatened to burn down my home and the boys who beat me, were all white.
• As a teenager during the Vietnam War, my understanding that the face of evil was white grew stronger. Martin Luther King called it “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Muhammad Ali said, “I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over.” Peace marches were usually racially mixed, but counter-protesters were always white.
• As a long-haired kid in a time when long hair was a political statement, I constantly watched out for white people who might jump me. Once when I was bicycling, someone yelled “hippie!” and a Coke bottle narrowly missed my head. The thrower was white.
• I’ve always preferred multicultural neighborhoods. When I lived in New York in the late ‘70s, I preferred the West Side to the East because it was less white. During those years, I changed planes in Toronto once and was uncomfortable for several hours without understanding why. When a First Nations family boarded the plane, I knew the reason. Until then, everyone I had seen was white.
• My lovers have included African American and American Indian women. For men who use women, that means nothing, but when I call them lovers, I mean that if my life had gone differently, I might still be with them today. I’ve always been attracted to dark-haired and dark-skinned women and indifferent to blondes for reasons I don’t know. The heart and the eye will seek what they seek.
But it’s possible I’m looking for more dramatic reasons than necessary to explain why I prefer people with dark skin. Emma and my Florida friend had less extreme histories with race than I did. Yair Bar-Haim of Tel-Aviv University led a study that found babies raised around a single race commonly develop a preference for faces like the ones they know, but “babies raised with frequent exposure to people of other races don’t develop this early bias.”
What other factors make people prefer other races or have no preference, I don’t know, but they clearly exist: Project Implicit’s people who don’t prefer their own race includes people who grew up in neighborhoods that were mostly people like them.
Perhaps a saying like “everyone’s racist” is only a saying. Few generalizations about humans explain us all.