The numbers say I am racist

How do we recognize when we are flying in autopilot?

Last week I took a version of the Implicit Association Test. The aim of the test is to look at perhaps hidden bias in our own minds by looking at the difference in ability to associate positive terms with or negative terms or positive terms with a given race or identity, in this case not my own. I did quite poorly. I’m not even really sure I want to admit this. How comfortable am I admitting this result with my friends? Is that a conversation I want to have? Would it be hurtful to do so? Or is it only my own ego I would hurt?

So in short the survey was a really a horrible experience. I am grateful for the experience, but to be blunt I found it sickening. Have you ever felt self-conscious around yourself? Have you ever found yourself wondering what you might be thinking? A little tempted to squirm out of your own consciousness, and find some meaningless distraction? Have you ever attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation in your head as though looking for gossip? This week I have found myself questioning myself. I want to know if this is true in my interactions with people. Or at least I want to find out. It’s hard to say if I really want to know.

From the experience, I think there were two kinds of factors playing in on the unconscious mind – the mind on autopilot. The first a bias against another group, and the second a bias toward myself. The first is hard for me to wrap my mind around. The second is easier. What I have never noticed before is how many of my mnemonics are based on some system of ranking, of doling out importance. When I memorize numbers I use tricks like noticing when the digits add to 10, patterns and symmetry, and – conspicuously – a competition between the “good” even numbers and the “bad” odd numbers. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember without ever consciously deciding to do so.

What’s scary is how often I use “likeness to me” as a mnemonic. I’ll use my age, my initials, my favorite color, my “favorite” number, whatever it takes as a tag. And if I am trying to remember an ordered list or associate numbers with terms, I find it easier to remember when the more “me-like” is the greater. For example, potassium is “my” element because it’s abbreviation is “K.” My initial. The concentration of potassium is high inside the cell (I get to be the “insider”), and the Na+/K+-ATPase that maintains this gradient only pumps 2 K+ in for every 3 Na+ out (because I can’t be pushed around like so much sodium…). I use all sorts of mnemonics and the crazier the better. My memory is pretty horrible. Repetition hardly helps. My spelling skills are remedial (if anyone bothered to recognize that there is such a thing). But I don’t think I am off the mark when I say my memorization skills – the conscious ability to memorize what I set out to memorize – are very good. It’s something you practice as a biology major. But I’ve never pieced this together before; good at what cost? Have I trained myself to be quickly and instinctively egocentric?

And then there is the other factor that I have to wrestle with. The idea that with these results there is inherently a bias against. That’s the way this works. What do I do with that? I really like the concept so the hidden brain introduced by Shankar Vedantam. In effect he says that one of the best ways to get back control form the autopilot in my mind is to admit that the autopilot is there. To be aware of it.  That’s what this assassination test did for me.  Kind of like when a real pilot can be tricked into believing they are flying level between two layers of clouds, when if fact the clouds are not level at all.  We need some instrumentation and hard and fast numbers to identify the false horizon.  In the interview with Shankar Vedantam they talked about the idea of which person the autopilot of personal default or the conscious pilot is the “real you.” I really think it depends of which one is flying the plane. David Foster Wallace: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Whether his long bout with depression and eventual suicide gives him credibility here or the lack of it could be taken either way; I fundamentally agree with this quote. So I will take it as a good thing: not getting a poor score on the Implicit Assessment Test, but having taken it and gotten a score at all. And I hope that this exercise will build into my arsenal and allow me to help facilitate similar experiences in the classroom and continually in my own life.

12 thoughts on “The numbers say I am racist”

  1. Thanks for the post! It does take a lot of courage to admit something about ourselves that we think are bad. However, as an old saying in China (or a writer actually wrote this?) goes: “you can never wake up someone who pretends to be asleep.” The first step of improving something is to admit it. Now you know you are not asleep, you are awake, so you can work on it. We are all struggling with some kind of stereotype. But now we know, we can improve. 🙂

  2. Yes, yes and yes! I completely understand (and share) the embarrassment and confusion you experienced in the aftermath of the implicit association test. I’ve taken several of them, and found myself to be a biased bozo every single time. It is disconcerting, but I think the point you make at the end, and that Yi echoes above, is right — self-awareness is essential; recognition of the powerful unseen (and therefore un-examined) forces that shape our perceptions of the world and each other is difficult to come by and precious in terms of the opportunity it presents us for some difficult meta-cognition.
    Now, if you really want to blow your mind, read Claude Steele….

  3. Thanks for sharing!

    I don’t think having some implicit bias means you are racist. I’ve been working on implicit bias for sometime and I still get amazed by the results on these tests.

    What is really important is that recognizing it is the first step. But I think you are beyond self-awareness, when you are so conscious about it that you have a theory about what initiated the unintentional bias I think you took the second step.

    Please take this moment of self-reflection to also think about how can you use this information about yourself to create a more inclusive classroom, to provide safe learning environments, and to minimize prejudice.

    Recognizing it is half of the battle, but we need to understand that we are all biased. We also can reduce bias but it takes ongoing attention, and effort, we need mindful vigilance and practice.



  4. Thanks for the post. While taking the test myself, I was skeptical of its relation to actual bias. E.g. can this test really predict who is more racist or less racist in their actions. I took the religions test and was reassured that my bias range was in the middle 50% quantile, but does this mean anything? So after reading your post, I went to the literature. Obviously, I’m not an expert on this, but I found a recent meta-analysis that shows that the implicit racism test correlates with actual racist actions very poorly. r=0.1-0.2. So I wouldn’t worry too much about your test score-it is unlikely to be a very unreliable measure of how you unconsciously treat people.

  5. When I took the gender-career test, my test result reflected my opinion – I associated men with career more than I associate women with career. So I didn’t experienced the condition you mentioned here. Thanks for helping me think more about the test. If you believe you are not a racist, and you won’t discriminate people on the basis of their race. Then don’t worry about it. The test result could be a reference.

  6. Thanks for your idea nad interesting post.

    I think that we cannot claim that these numbers show our direction to bias. For example, a religious person may select an option that indicates he/she has a strong attitude to his/her religion. But it does not mean that he/she does not respect to other religions. Particularly, some religions suggest their followers to respect others’rights. So, I personally believe that these type of surveys should be evaluated before general usages.

  7. You have some remarkable and memorable comments here:
    1)”Have I trained myself to be quickly and instinctively egocentric?”

    2)”Have you ever attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation in your head as though looking for gossip?”

    The first quote is fascinating in that most bio majors who just memorize themselves to A grades often tend to have a chip on their shoulder. I’m not saying YOU are like this, but recognizing you are good at memorizing in a field where memorization is important can have this effect. I did poorly in biology primarily because I was questioning everything in the textbook — there is certainly a degree of guess-work which occurs in writing textbooks and this is what partly drew me to the history and philosophy of science. But that is interesting how you drew the idea of instinctive memorization to instinctive egoism. Brilliant.

    The second quote is really well written; its a psychological statement in literary prose really. I’m sure all of us do this, but we never thought about it the way you have written it, very nice.

    I also liked the following quote that you quote: David Foster Wallace: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

    Most science students in undergrad seem to “go through the motions” of their degree and mock how the humanities and social sciences simply complicate life un-necessarily. I saw myself, a chemistry major who is now in the liberal arts, as someone who 30 years later would have to begin addressing serious questions about my life and the ideas I have; the liberal arts have helped expose the diversity of the world and prepared me for those deep personal moments by myself in the future. Can science do this for us? I am doubtful and worry about those who think it can.

  8. Thank you for your honest post and reflections! I, too, was disappointed in the results of the implicit bias test I took, but sadly I wasn’t surprised. Do I think my results mean that I’m a hateful person? No. Do I think that it means I automatically make some associations between certain people and certain things? Yes. In fact, I noticed while I was taking the test thinking “Oh, this part is easier than the last part” precisely because I could tell I was relying on those associations. And can those patterns of thought cause real harm to people? Yes! I think many, many people hold these implicit biases in our heads and I think they have serious implications, even if we’re not trying to be racist/sexist/etc. But I love Yi’s comment on being awake to these issues. Being aware of these biases in our own heads is the only way to start dismantling them!

  9. First, let me say that I disagree with those bias tests because I think they are designed to trip you up by their paring and are not a true reflection (but I’ve not researched them – only taken them in a couple of classes). So I take your admission of being racist lightly. 🙂 I do think, however, the tests can bring about awareness. The awareness makes us realize and reflect on ways we do think, feel, and act. The whole fact you have been mulling it over seems that the test brought things to the forefront for you to examine. That is a key process in change (or reaffirmation of remaining the same). Thanks!

  10. To be fair, it is only one test. You shouldn’t bog yourself down because there was one instance where your implicit bias happened to show. Human beings are biased creatures. There are things which we wrestle with regularly. I hope that this self reflection ends up being productive rather than disruptive.

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