“I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice

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Recently, I read a post from With Some Grace which was inspired by an SBS Insight special, “I’m Not Racist, But…….”. The show, in turn, was most likely prompted by the government’s upcoming National Anti-Racism Strategy, which we are all urged to be a part of.

In my last post, I shared my opinions on the concept of “race” and related terminology. I strongly believe “race” is not a biological reality. Genetics have shown more similarity between “races” than we may realise. I believe “race” is a social construct primarily to categorise people on physical appearance. Personally, I dislike the word and prefer to use “ethnicity” when describing the cultural heritage of people from diverse backgrounds.

Today, I wanted to share my experience and thoughts of the test used to determine innate or prejudiced inclinations – the IAT (Implicit Association Test).

I will finish this series with the “nature versus nurture” debate and provide some resources for educating our children about difference and diversity.

The Implicit Association Test

The IAT was developed by Harvard University in the USA to gauge “hardwired” racism and other prejudices. For the show, the audience was asked to take the Aboriginal Test. As described by SBS Insight host, Jenny Brockie:

“…..The test measures subconscious associations we have using pictures and words. We wanted to compare attitudes towards white and indigenous Australians…..First, they had to link one group with negative words and the other with positive words, then vice versa…..Your reaction time reveals how readily you link good and bad feelings with those different groups……”

Three Tests for Race?

Before I took the Aboriginal IAT, I noticed other tests in the main menu. These measured subconscious prejudice for skin-tone, race, sexuality, gender, countries, weight and age.

It puzzled me why there were three tests focusing on racial traits – skin-tone (light-skin vs dark-skin), race (black vs white) and Aboriginal (Aboriginal vs White). This immediately irked me. “Race” is not a dichotomy of just “black” and “white”, if we must colourise people at all. What about other ethnic groups?

Judging Ambiguous Statements

As I worked through the Aboriginal IAT, I had further issue with some of the word statements from the test site. Some of these statements are below. These required an answer indicating slight, moderate or strong agreement or disagreement.

“There are many radical, immoral people trying to ruin things; society ought to stop them.”

“It is better to accept bad literature than to censor it.”

“Many good people challenge the state, criticise the church and ignore ‘the normal way of living’.”

“The situation in the society of today would be improved if troublemakers were treated with reason and humanity.”

I felt uncomfortable with the value judgment about the definition of certain words. What is “bad literature”? Immoral, poorly written? Who are “troublemakers”? A person of a different race or ethnic background? An actual criminal? Asylum seekers? The context would definitely influence my answer.

Who Decides Your Race?

The race-related/skin colour tests also rely on society’s categorisation of someone’s race. They ignore the actual reality of an individual’s diverse ethnic heritage. They assume a person who looks “black” or “white” must be classified as one or the other. What about mixed race people who look more black or more white?

Test Results

The audience present for the SBS Insight special took the Aboriginal IAT. The host Jennie Brockie reported that, “The results found that around 80% of you have negative associations with indigenous people.” It was an interesting result given the diversity apparently within the audience. Some were not surprised at the result. However, others were in disbelief with their own test result and heartily disagreed.

And what of my test results? I ended up with a neutral to slight preference for white.

At the end, the test asks why you believe you received the result you did and whether you accept it. For me, I am convinced it is because of “my greater familiarity with one group or topic than the other”. Pure and simple.

The Implications of the Test – Are we doomed to our fate?

Going back to the actual tests in themselves; do they prove racism is “hardwired”? Personally, I totally reject this notion. As one audience member so wisely and insightfully stated:

“It’s a bit of a copout to suggest racism is a genetic thing. We’re medicalising it and it’s a social problem. If it’s genetic, brought from family to family….it’s more of a cultural thing not a genetic thing. By medicalising it and inventing a pill to cure it, we’re saying, “It’s not my fault. I can do this because I’m hard-wired to do it.” It’s a cultural problem, it’s an educational problem, politically put out there, media put out there and we lap it up maybe because we’re frightened of difference or whatever. But I really have a problem with medicalising racism.”

And so do I.

More about that in my next and last post in which I share my thoughts on the “nature versus nurture” perspective of racial awareness and what we can do as parents to educate our children.

Disclaimer

I am not an academic expert in any aspect of race or ethnic studies, either from an anthropological, biological or sociological perspective. I purely have a personal interest in the topic due to my own cultural background. These are my own personal opinions. I also acknowledge that I write of this from what might be deemed a perspective of “white privilege” and I realise those who live with daily prejudice might beg to differ. I welcome your thoughts.

Related Posts

“I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference

“I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture?

Will my children look like me?

Mistaken Identity

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25 thoughts on ““I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice

  1. I tend to avoid this topic, because I find there are so many strong views.

    I don’t think I’m racist. I do recognise the differences between different cultures, and see that some things are definite attributes of their ethnicity, and others of they individual personalities. Sometimes these traits are good, and other times I disagree, but that’s just me.

    I do get quite upset with the way a lot of people in the southern states talk about Indigenous Australians. I realise that they are disadvantaged, but here in the territory, 52% of education is allocated towards indigenous education, even though they only make up 30% of the student population. We are prejudiced against in so many ways, and what they’re given is abused by not all, but a lot of them unfortunately.
    I don’t know what the answer is, but I do have an issue with the whole thing, because our society isn’t equal, but it’s not necessarily the ‘white’ who are the privileged.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jess. You bring an interesting perspective because you are living in a community quite different to many of us in the major cities. I can’t comment with any authority on the issues you raise but I can appreciate the challenge they bring. I have read about “positive discrimination” in some US material and how in some cases, it has resulted in college entrants of mixed heritage choosing the “race” that is more likely to give them a chance of admission based on “affirmative action” policies. It has, obviously, raised concern with others who feel discriminated against.

      It is a complicated issue and I do worry, not being an expert in any way, of getting in over my head. Yet I still feel the discussions can be helpful, as long as they remain as civil and respectful as possible.

      You’ve left me with some things to think about. I might ask a friend of mine who works with indigenous communities, what her thoughts are on these issues.

  2. Interesting post! I watched that SBS Insight episode, and the last quote you quoted struck me as rather odd in the context. The person who said it seemed to be responding to the research which had actually stated that racism is ‘inherited’. Inherited is just not the same a biological or genetic. I inherited hazel eyes from my father, that is genetic. I inherit cravings for lollies in front of the television at night from my mother, that is sociological. Inheritance is both a natural phenomenon and a environmental phenomenon. To find that racism is inheritable only suggests we inherit it from our parents and wider family – where we inherit most of attitudes, one way or another…

  3. Hmmm, don’t know if my comment went through or not… Might be doubling up here, but here I go again…

    That last quote was quite odd in the context of the show – I remember it well! The person who said that seemed to referring to the data which had suggested that racism is ‘inheritable’. Inheritable is not the same as genetic, but people jumped tot he conclusion that it was. Inheritable can be either biological (genetic) or sociological (environmental). I would strongly suggest in this context it was meant to mean both, but presumably more the latter. That is people inherit their attitudes towards other races and/or cultures from the environment which influences during their formative years. We inherit attitudes from our family, our friends, our teachers – anyone we love or respect. I’m pretty sure it’s not genetic.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sif. It went to spam for some reason.

      I get what you are saying about things that are inheritable vs genetic. There is a definite difference. I’m pretty convinced racism isn’t genetic too.

    • Janet, I don’t think you are alone in having some prejudices. I think we all do to varying degrees. I have to catch myself applying some stereotypes at times and even though I don’t actively mean any harm, they can still be hurtful. I think with anything in our lives, we are all a work in progress.

    • It’s a topic that really works the cogs of the mind, Rachel. I think there is a natural tendency to stick with what we know. It is most comfortable. I do it too. It’s what we do with/how we treat difference that I think is the test. Going one way can lead to major prejudice and racism but going the other with an open mind and heart could lead to better understanding.

  4. Definitely think its wrong to say we are hard-wired for racism! As the audience member said – why not solve alot of conflict by creating a “cure” if it was so simple.

    • Yet it’s sad, Nee, that some do say it’s meant to be this way and that some of us are better than others. It seems a simple thing to treat another person with respect and consideration, yet I also know it’s a complicated issue otherwise there wouldn’t be so many conflicts in the world.

  5. Really interesting thoughts Veronica. I love “Insight”- always so interesting. Love what the audience member said about medicalising racism, and I’m interested to see your thoughts on nature vs nurture. Last year, we moved from a quite multi-cultural area to a fairy mono-cultural area. Previously, our eldest daughter went to preschool with children from Anglo-saxon, East Asian, Sub-continental and African ethnicity, and she never made any comments about anyone looking or being different (and still, never has in my presence)… More recently my son (who was only about 18 months old when we moved here), made comment about someone with dark skin (not derogatory, just asking)… I wonder whether the lack of exposure and lack of normal friendships with people from diverse backgrounds has led to his curiousity/ caution, and would he have been different if he had the opportunities for diverse friendships that our daughter had from a younger age?

    • Julie, I have some references in the next post that might be interesting in relation to your experience with your son. Children notice difference but not with the malicious intent that racism implies. I think it’s what we do with what they notice that’s the issue.

  6. Wow Veronica, I haven’t heard or seen these tests, but they sound like an absolute crock to me. What in the hell do they mean by hardwired? Are they trying to find a reason to excuse racism? What is the purpose of this so called research? Thanks for highlighting this debacle. Your critique is solid.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Lee. The tests are a bit unsettling but they’ve been created by a university of great repute so it is perplexing. I can’t imagine they mean to justify prejudice but I can see how people might use the results to do so. I think one of the purposes of the test is to help with attitude modification.

      In any case, Wiki has some interesting comments under “Controversy” on the IAT (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_Association_Test#Criticism_and_controversy). It said:

      “The IAT has engendered some controversy in both the scientific literature[15] and in the public sphere (e.g., in the Wall Street Journal.[16] For example, it has been interpreted as assessing familiarity,[17] perceptual salience asymmetries,[18] or mere cultural knowledge irrespective of personal endorsement of that knowledge.”

      I suspect we all know if we have prejudices without a test.

  7. I absolutely disagree that we are doomed to our fate. That we are hardwired is something of a cop out. Someone, somewhere is always capable of breaking the cycle.

  8. I agree with what the audience member said about medicalising racism.. actually with a lot of other issues that can’t really be explained, it is so easy to say that you are genetically engineered that way. It really is over-simplifying the matter. I’m looking forward to read what you have to say about educating the children about racism. I seem to have it easier here because of the majority of Asians living in Singapore, but one day, I know my girl will go out into the world and see that not everybody can accept her for who she is just because of how she looks. Sad but true..

    Ai @ Sakura Haruka

    • Thanks for your comment, Ai. It is a complicated issue and we can’t simplify it. Your thoughts on what Pumpkin might face as she grows us are interesting.

      My experiences as a “mixed race”, Eurasian, in Singapore were very significant for me. It was a turning point from being teased as a child in Australia to suddenly being of great interest to my classmates. It was a difficult thing to process as a child.

      I have always found Singapore a great mix of cultures. I know it’s not a perfect society but it generally works. Many other countries in Asia, maybe excluding Malaysia, are much more homogenous and difference is quote obvious. I remember thinking that when I visited Japan. It’s not quite that way in Singapore.

  9. I never sat the test (I don’t really care to) but the reaction from the Insight audience was so diverse, wasn’t it ? It really made my blood boil how the Social Psychologist kept trying to argue that having that having a result of “80% having negative associations with indigenous people” was very much the norm…Whaaaa ??? So, this means it doesn’t need fixing ? We can happily sit back and say that it’s okay to be this way ? And yes, I loved the lady who stood up and said that hard-wired racism is a cop out.

    • I was surprised at how high the percentage of negative association too, Grace. I found it a little unbelievable that this was the norm. I think it would have been interesting if they had discussed some of the points publicly that I had issue with such as the meaning of the statements. I found a wiki article which did outline some of the controversies of that test.

      I tried to find out what the purpose of the test was. I don’t think it was explained. Was it merely a fact finding exercise? Did it have a higher aim? Obviously some might use it to justify their prejudice. I think I read somewhere the creators of it hoped it would help people to understand where they stood on these issues so they could action to change their attitudes or modify behaviour. But how one does that isn’t explained. I know I’d have ideas of how to change I’d want to myself but I’m not sure everyone would.

  10. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture? « Mixed Gems

  11. I don’t think the test results prove anything more than a familiarity. Like yourself, I don’t think they prove racism is hardwired at all. When society starts saying that racism is genetic – and medicalising it – it’s a serious lack of accountability of our socialising/parenting. A cop out indeed.

    I know I read this one out of order (No. 2 this is and I read it last – sorry) – but I have so enjoyed reading your thoughts on this Veronica. It’s so important to talk about this. Thank you. x

  12. I really like the comment that the gentleman had made about people trying to medicalise racism. It will end up being an excuse for people to verbally abuse others cause they have a genetic problem. I do believe it does come from the home and the media though.

  13. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference « Mixed Gems

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