I Didn’t Know Author Jason Mott Was Black. Does That Make Me a Racist?
When I discovered the book The Returned, I read it, loved it and decided to talk about it on the Unprintable podcast. Then I thought the author might like to hear the segment (authors generally like listening to people say nice stuff about their books), so I searched for Jason Mott on Twitter, so I could tweet him the link.
Here comes the embarrassing part of this story. This is the part when I could lie a bit to save my reputation, but what’s the point of a confessional story if you lie? Also, this story is about something that we white people lie about far too often, so perhaps now is the time for some unvarnished truth. Here’s what happened when Twitter returned its search results. I looked at Jason Mott’s photo and I double checked I had the right person. Even though his creds are clearly mentioned in his profile, I double checked.
Can you guess why?
The title of this column should give the reason away. I’m not proud of my reaction. I won’t try to dilute it by saying ‘oh I was a bit surprised’ instead of ‘I actually disbelieved the evidence in front of my eyes’. I will confess, because this is a confessional, and it is a confessional about something we need to be more honest about. I had a moment of disbelief about the guy in the photo on Twitter being the author of The Returned because the guy in the photo is black and the Jason Mott in my head, the one I expected to see, was white.
Now let me apologise for dragging Jason Mott into this, because I’m sure he’d rather I talked about his books than his ethnic background, and I hope he will forgive me for using him as an example. Let’s move on from him and get into the subject of implicit bias. Salon.com recently ran a good article on the subject, but talk about this phenomenon has been bobbing about the internet for a while. You might have visited Project Implicit and taken this test, (I haven’t – I already know what the result will be), you might not have. If you’re unfamiliar with this now well-documented piece of behaviour, implicit bias refers to how we link qualities to social constructs like gender or race. Implicit bias means that white people will be faster to associate positive attributes like ‘nice’ or ‘trustworthy’ or ‘author of important book’ to a photo of a white face than they will when shown the same attributes next to a photo of a black face. The converse is also true. We white people will associate negative qualities more quickly with black faces than we will with white.
But does this mean that white people go around with a bubble over their head, which fills with negative words every time they pass a black person in the street? From the behavior of certain members of the US police force, you might think so, but there’s stronger and more scientific evidence around that demonstrates how implicit bias has an actual effect on our behavior. Implicit bias has predictive validity: it can be used to predict how we will react in certain situations and not just those where we’re running on instinct (like how often we look at someone when we talk, or how widely we smile, or how close we stand) but those where we are making a conscious choice. Like voting. Or responding to a dating profile. Or double checking someone’s information on Twitter. Even when we’re fully aware of our actions and even in situations where we claim to be acting in an unbiased way, we’re not.
By now I guess some of you are entering the not me zone. Other white people might be jerks, but not me. Like bad driving, racist behaviour – conscious or unconscious – is something that other people are guilty of. You would never cut someone up on the freeway. Other people do that. You would never double check a twitter profile because you expected a white face instead of a black one (or a male face instead of a female one, because that happens too). Other people do that. When a S'leb chooses the wrong word in an interview, or tells a poorly thought out joke, we slip loose the dogs of social media outrage, safe in the some of my best friends are knowledge that we are not like other people. We would never do a thing like that.
Except we would. That’s the sobering fact about implicit bias. You don’t know you have it until you catch yourself at it and even when we do catch ourselves at it, we’re ready with excuses, because the one thing we don’t want to think about ourselves is that we’re the bad guy. We use the out there argument – implicit bias comes from the way the media portrays black people. We victim blame – implicit bias comes from the way black people portray themselves (this argument usually makes special reference to rap videos). We appeal to circumstances – implicit bias comes from having little everyday contact with black people. We shield ourselves from blame. Yes I have implicit bias, we admit. But only because other people have put it in my head.
There are three steps to personal change. The first step is acknowledging a problem exists – implicit bias does not belong to other white people, it belongs to white people, me included. The second step is owning the problem. It doesn’t really matter how the bias ended up in your head. It’s there and you have to deal with it. Deal with it and you stop being the bad guy and start being the flawed-but-basically-OK-guy, which is not a terrible thing to be. The third step is the trickiest. The third step is taking action, but THIS amply demonstrates how white people taking action on our bias can go wrong.Tackling our bias often makes us look like jerks and no one wants that.
So how do we successfully take action? I’m waiting to hear from you on that one.
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