Thursday, July 24, 2008

The White Guy Shares The Test Results And Some Thoughts on Identity Politics

The comments and phone calls I've received about Harvard's Implicit (IAT) test can be summarized as follows:

The test is rigged! It is designed to make me prefer white people (or European-Americans, as they are defined on the test).

Before I defend the test, let me offer a quick thought on the phrase "European-Americans." If a black person prefers to be called "African-American," I use the term. Sometimes I think it's silly because the particular person making the request has NO idea about ANY African culture, either past or present (which, by the way, varies widely from nation to African nation), nor any desire to learn about it. But that's not my call. Every person, out of respect, is entitled to "self-definition."

To that end, don't call me European-American.

My ancestors are German and Dutch, and what I know about those cultures can be boiled down to beer, the Bundestag, sauerkraut, Hitler, and wooden shoes. I have no desire to research this because, quite frankly, there are more interesting countries about which to learn. People tell me American culture was heavily influenced by the Germans and Dutch. If so, I can't tell you what part, except for the beer and sauerkraut, and knowing which part doesn't affect my day or self-worth. You see, I was born in America, and I am just that. An American. Not a European-American. Hyphenate if you choose, but don't force me into being a blend, too.

Also, here's a great way to avoid prejudice. Don't refer to my racial group as "whites" or "the whites," or "the white man," as I never refer to other racial, ethnic, or religious groups as "the blacks," "the Asians," or "the Arabs." No matter how people try to create racial monoliths, they don't exist. Any statement that begins with "the whites," "the white man," "blacks," "Arabs," or "the Jews" will be wrong, wrong, wrong. It is going to include a generalization that doesn't encapsulate every person in that group, and you will end up looking like a jackass.

But back to the test. If you didn't take it, it begins with the words "European-Americans" on one side and "African-Americans" on the other. You then see photos of both black and white people. You click "E" to put somebody in the left column or "I" to put them on the right. Then the test switches the sides, and you do it again. Then the test places the words "Bad" and "Good" at the top of the screen, and you get a series of adjectives, such as "awful," "glorious" or "friendly," and you again click the computer keys to put the adjective on the correct side. Again, the words at the top switch sides. Finally, you multi-task. You process photos and adjectives with both "European American" and "good" and "European-American" and "bad" on both sides.

The test measures your response time in microseconds, and after doing this battery, you are given a rating of whether you are neutral or prefer (slightly, moderately, or strongly) one group over the other. Over a run of hundreds of thousands of tests, the experiment revealed that 80% of test takers (and 50% of African-Americans, by the way) take longer to associate African-Americans with positive attributes than they do for white people.

Many of my readers have said it's a matter of "getting better as the test goes on." This is an intriguing thought because we see African-Americans paired with Good first, THEN with bad. But I'm left to ask, "How many trial runs do you have to do to 'get good' at pressing two buttons?" But more importantly, the study shows that repeat testers DIDN'T generally improve. Also, when experimenters "primed the pump" by showing photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, and some black track-and-field athletes holding the American flag during an Olympic ceremony beforehand, the test takers almost all did better on the test. If it were simple mechanics, how can you account for this result?

Everything relating to race makes people crazy, so if your results show a preference for European-Americans, calm down. It doesn't mean you secretly want to join the klan. It does, however, speak to the level of media fuel given to negative or positive perceptions of surrounding various racials groups, and further, it might also speak in troubling ways about the power of the subconscious in situations such as police action shootings where a deeply-ingrained bias means someone might not get the benefit of the doubt in a split-second decision.

But the testing is also hopeful because we know from the study that we can change those subconscious perceptions by simply feeding ourselves positive messages. In some cases, simply having human resource directors look at positive images of black people before they interview one ensures that any negative thoughts will be about the applicant and interview specifically, not about some subconscious, inarticulable group-based concern.

Mental note to self: send HR department director framed MLK photo for birthday.

The White Guy



Anonymous said...

Actually I was really surprised to find that I moderately prefer African Americans despite being ridiculously white myself.
Kara G.

varangianguard said...

The test is what it is. It isn't the end all of bias discovery nor is it rigged in the sense that I think some of your participants claim. It seems to be a 10 year old experimental model whose validity is still to subject to long term rigorous review.

Frankly, I kind of think it is a kind of a theoretical hypothesis like proving "the sky is blue". On a purely qualitative level, I find it fairly clear (to me) that bias, in this case racial bias, is endemic to humanity as a whole. It is my experience that all humans have an inherent racial bias that is a combination of genetic and behavioral/cultural factors. I have seen this via personal observation and don't require a quantitative test to prove this to myself. In fact, not that everyone might believe me, but I have found several East Asian cultures to be far more racially (and culturally) biased over European-Americans, as a whole.

In this, I think that the Harvard IAT test falls short in not factoring non-European and non-African variables into the test. In that, the test overly limits itself, and if it wants to extend itself to other racial groups, it is doing so without proper testing in context.

That said, I would caution people against placing too much emphasis on their own personal results. No matter how one's inclinations might be biased by genetics and/or culture, it is still one's actions that are the final determinant in inter-personal relations. And, in that, I would hope that our actions define us moreso than our color or any other physical attribute.

True Conservative said...

I was not surprised. I show no preference. White male anglo saxon once a protestant.

iPOPA said...


I had that preference, too! But I had just spent a pleasant dinner with my fiancee, who is a black woman, and she was on my mind. I speculated that this might have given the "positive association" boost referred to in the research.


I really appreciate your thoughts. I've always believed "prejudice" is like alcoholism. You have to admit you have it to combat it each day, but nobody wants to admit it, when we ALL have it. It's part of the natural thought process to generalize.

If I go to an Italian restaurant, and I get food poisoning, it's an isolated incident and maybe I blame my bad luck. But if I go three consecutive times and get food poisoning, the assumption likely won't be I made some poor food choices, or I picked three unsanitary restaurants. It will likely be a broader generalization than necessary or prudent, such as "Italian restaurants are bad for you." Three out of how many hundreds of thousands gets you to this conclusions?!?!

Somehow we're expected to totally turn our generalizing natures off when racial things happen. I don't think we can. But the answer is to actively seek out the contradictory details and if a generalization still comes, make it as narrow as possible.

An African-American woman I know recently made a comment to me after viewing the crowd at a bus stop about how so many young African-American women were overweight. She obviously had this running thought before then, and everytime she saw a heavy young black woman, she got affirmation for her theory. So I asked her this question: "How fat are young WHITE women?" Surprisingly, she didn't know. Why? She wasn't looking for that. Also, when I looked at the bus stop crowd, I saw 2 overweight young black women and three young thin ones. Why didn't my friend comment on the thin ones? Because we all have confirmation bias. It's harder to accept something that goes against our preconceptions, so we discard the contradictory "data."

True conservative:

If the test has validity, kudos to you. Whatever media imagery bombarded you, you have filtered it rightly. You look at the other evidence, and that's always key to an open mind.