Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

My reading list this summer has been an interesting one – more fiction than usual, including rereading some favorite Barbara Kingsolver such as Animal Dreams. I picked up this book, Blindspot, on my list as part of my continuing self-exploration of privilege and diversity, begun in earnest when I attended the People of Color Conference last December (written about here).

I’ll admit I was not particularly compelled by the book. It offers good lay descriptions of how psychology tests are laid out, particularly the IAT, or Implicit Association Test. It interprets the results and helps the reader understand their conclusion. But in response to their own question, “How can we outsmart our own minds’ blindspots?”, they offer little advice. I realize this may not be even possible, given that they themselves say that there is little evidence of any treatments or procedures that change the IAT. (The one thing that they did say can reduce implicit associations for college students was the finding that women college students had “a strengthening female = leader and female = math association after they have sustained exposure via their college courses to women faculty members.” (p.152) Interesting.)

I liked being able to take the IAT’s through the links they shared in the book. To be able to get personalized results of my implicit associations I think improves my understanding of the test and affords the gut understanding of what the results mean personally. Like the authors themselves and many White and non-White Americans, for that matter, I have an automatic White preference. This puts me in the category of “uncomfortable egalitarians:” White Americans, who “earnestly describe themselves as egalitarian but nevertheless have differential behavior towards Whites and Blacks.” Additionally, they “have no awareness they are doing anything discriminatory. They see themselves as helpful, but it turns out that their helpfulness is selective, caused in part by their discomfort in interracial interactions.” The frustrating conclusion, though, particularly for someone who seeks intellectual understanding to change behavior, is that despite knowing this, I probably won’t see the differential actions. So who can give me the feedback that I need to become more aware?

Another interesting piece of the book was the persistence of fear responses to conditioning against an in- or out-group: “White Americans showed faster extinguishing of fear toward a White face than a Black face, and Black Americans showed the opposite effect, being faster to recover their fear of the Black face…. While the persistence of such negative reactions may once have had a survival value, this is yet another instance of a hard-wired response that has lost its relevance. In the modern world, where friendships, collaborations, businesses, and entire economies span the globe in a highly networked web of interdependence, the ability to create alliances that bypass boundaries of race, nationality, and culture can have bearing on our well -being, our prosperity, our productivity – and perhaps even our survival.” (p.135)

And finally, they rephrased privilege: “Receiving the benefits of being in the in-group tends to remain invisible for the most part. And this is perhaps why members of the dominant or majority groups are often genuinely stunned when the benefits they receive are pointed out. Blindspots hide both discriminations and privileges, so neither the discriminators nor the targets of discrimination, neither those who do the privileging nor the privileged, are aware. No small wonder that any attempt to consciously level the playing field meets with such resistance.” (p.144) (This makes me think back to the whole Tal Fortgang exchange this past May. Tal’s piece in Time, Katie McDonough’s response on Salon.com, and Mark Ritvo’s longer response. There were also many Facebook exchanges with people’s thoughts on the issue.)

To me, understanding white privilege is a way to understand my experience and others’ experiences in our world. During ICC Day#2, one of the key points made was the importance of humility in learning intercultural competency. That has remained with me, and it guides me to understand and not judge, to describe and not evaluate, to change my behavior and understandings in an effort to understand how my actions and behaviors might be interpreted and to question my perception of others.

I find it interesting that I reread Animal Dreams prior to this. Although there are many themes, in the book, including race and Native Americans, the title refers to the question of whether a city dog can dream of chasing rabbits, given that it has never seen any. In other words, can I imagine a world where there is no racial privilege? When Banaji and Greenwald put things in terms of in-group and out-group preferences, or even Dr. Seuss’ star-belly and plain-belly sneetches, I have to admit I can’t see a world where everyone is proclaimed exactly equal by some arbiter of equality given that we are hard-wired to prefer those like us.

Reverend Bill Sinkford, preacher at First Unitarian Church of Portland, whom I’ve quoted before, says it like this in his sermon, People Get Ready, perhaps the most important message I had heard ever about diversity, inclusion, intercultural competence, change, and UUism:

Ours is a theology of radical hospitality to the human spirit. That is what valuing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our first principle, means and that is how it calls us to live.

If we in fact, and not just in theory, want to create the Beloved Community in this pluralistic world, then learning how to deal with differences becomes not just a practical necessity but a spiritual requirement and a spiritual calling as well.

Cultural competence is not so much about getting it right as it is getting comfortable in a world where the assumptions of your life are not universally shared.

The day is coming when all will know

That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than the monochrome, That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, Stubborn rocks in its course,
That the margins hold the center.

Will we welcome the rainbow world in new ways?

Can we imagine a future where the margins and the center are held together in one thriving Beloved Community? Or to ask it another way, with our theology and our commitments, how could we not?

While psychology research may give us some tools for documentation and analysis of the human experience, it is the UU theology that gives me the principles and wisdom to shape my journey and the hope to sustain me.

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One thought on “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

  1. Pingback: Mentors and the end of Tell Me More | Julie Kallio Robison

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