What Lurks In Your Subconscious?


Do we secretly harbor prejudices against those different from us? Source: Brenda Anderson hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Brenda Anderson

A couple of months ago, this article, by science writer Siri Carpenter, popped up on the Scientific American website. It's about the science of bigotry; how much implicit bias affects us, and how we act on it. I'm deeply interested in the weird social behaviors our brains conceal — no matter how much training we've had to ignore them. Do some digging on the web, and you'll find any number of association tests meant to test your hidden biases. (If you want to take one, you'll find them here, and here.) It got us talking (they don't call us Talk for nothing), about how you can possibly measure the buried prejudices in your subconscious, and what it would feel like, to face an unpleasant truth about yourself. We want to ask our listeners — was there a moment when you realized you harbored a secret dislike of another social or ethnic group? How did you feel — and how did you change it?



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I have done one of these tests for a college course and I found, as did others in my class, to be flawed. The test that I took required me to uses each hand and go through the questions and do various associations with good or bad. Being as I am right handed, and in having little proficiency with my left hand, and as the questions continued I had less "correct" associations when the associations switched.

Is this the way that the tests you are discussing conducted?

Sent by Suzanne of Laramie, WY | 2:18 PM | 7-31-2008

Fear and prejudice: is it toward those who are not like us, or rather is it toward those who are unfamiliar?

Try this: be the white peace corps worker who spends a year among black people. Return to your predominantly white homeland, and see if all those white people in the airport terminal don't look strange, perhaps ugly, probably a little scary.

I think they do. I think the white person in that situation feels more like "we" are black people, and "they" are white people. At least to some extent. What do you think?

Sent by davy B | 2:18 PM | 7-31-2008

I have long said that to move past racist, sexism, homophobia or the like was for those with privileges to admit they have those privileges. For example: it is my believe that our nation will never truly heal from racism until white people admit that they are racist; or, we will never heal from the outcomes of sexism (such as rape or the glass ceiling) until men...well...admit they have a problem. As a person with many privileges, I do my very best to admit those privileges though it is extremely painful to do so. I think "pain" is the key word there. Are there any studies about the association between "pain" and "prejudice?"

Sent by Nate - Minneapolis, MN | 2:20 PM | 7-31-2008

I've spent some time on the Afro-Antillian coast of Panama. Blacks are in positions of power and own most businesses. I have found that after an even short few weeks there I meet and relate differently with people. When I return to the U.S. I am disappointed to find that this approach does not work here. It is very eye-opening nonetheless. I have always been sensitive to race issues but find that international experience is enlightening and surprising.

Sent by Ralph | 2:21 PM | 7-31-2008

This sounds like social engineering? I have a friend who as been raped twice from two different attackers within five years;both black males, we don't live in a good neighborhood. I don't think trying to adjust ones' attitude is not always the best thing for self preservation.
Mike in Cincinnati

Sent by kelch@zoomtown.com | 2:23 PM | 7-31-2008

I'm a black American and I was raised for the most part in a middle-class family. My father was in the military so I was exposed to many diverse cultures and people. As I grew up I was always labeled as being very 'white' and, indeed, I had very few black friends. Now, I associate more with whites and Asians than I do with blacks and I have a prejudice against blacks in the way that I don't feel that I can associate or connect with them but I'm obligated too. It's not comforting but I've spent my whole life as a "not black" person.

Sent by Amanda | 2:25 PM | 7-31-2008

I am a Black woman who does research on this subject and has delivered workshops to healthcare professionals in an effort to decrease health disparities by addressing implicit racism. I cannot describe the level of anger and resistance that has been shown during those workshops. I am still shocked when White workshop participants dissolve into tears because they are offended simply because we are suggesting that racism still exists. Often those individuals seem to expect that the Black workshop participants will offer them comfort and will assure them that things are OK. Until we can admit our own prejudices, and that some tremendous prejudices still exists and that they cause great harm, things can't get better.

Please ask your guests to comment on how this blanket denial can be addressed. I believe one key is for more of us to learn about US history, since much of the present day biases seem rooted in ignorance of the events from the antebellum period through the civil rights period on until today.

Thank you for doing this show.

Sent by Georgette King, MPA PhD(c) | 2:30 PM | 7-31-2008

sometimes reality bolsters our prejudices and makes it experience. Experience that should be trusted for self preservation. I ride a bike all around Baltimore city. Each and every time somebody hassles me by trying to steal my bike, throw garbage at me, shout at me in an attempt to make me fall from the bike, that person has been black. I wish for once that person were white, but he never is.

Sent by Mike | 2:34 PM | 7-31-2008

Until I was 10 years old, I lived in Germany and was not aware that there were people of other colors, and had never seen one. One day some friends and I had wandered off farther than we were allowed, and we were already a bit giddy over being in a new area. And then it happened: there was a black man walking toward us less than a block from us! We knew immediately, without anyone uttering a word, that it was the devil! We ran home, terrified and never spoke of the incident again. Having lived in the U.S. for 50 years now, and working for a public agency, I've certainly overcome my abject fear of anyone different from me. However, color certainly is hard to ignore when you first encounter another individual. Today, when encountering someone on the street whom I don't know, I'm more inclined to look at cleanliness, grooming, tattoos, and needle marks.

Sent by Dolores in Modesto | 2:35 PM | 7-31-2008

I just took the shooter test online and scored 220 with my reaction time as follows;
Black Armed 699.52ms
Black Unarmed 855.36ms
White Armed 685.56ms
White Unarmed 810.4ms
What does this show about me?

Sent by Kris | 2:36 PM | 7-31-2008

was wondering Have these same tests been given to african americans and are they prejudiced against blacks or not? Personal feeling is people develop common sense fears based on experiences and not just blatant prejudice.

Sent by Patrick | 2:37 PM | 7-31-2008

When I was 10 and living in a total white community, my mother signed me up for much wanted swimming lessons in the next town. After the first lesson, I had a wonderful time playing with a black girl, the first black I had ever met. "See you next Saturday," we both said. I can still remember how happy I felt. Between that moment and the following week, my parents and grandparents (from Scotland) said something that caused me to totally ignore my new friend. What was said was lost to me but I wouldn't talk to her or play the next time. The horrible feeling I had is still with me for shunning her. In fact, I couldn't go back a third week.

I thnk that it was an outstanding lesson that has stayed with me my entire life. I have tried to be totally open and accepting of all people my whole life and raised my children to not be prejudiced as well. Hard lesson, though.

Sent by Judy | 2:38 PM | 7-31-2008

Living in a very mixed race neighborhood as a young white woman, I feel that I do pre-judge other people around me. However, the first thing I take into account is posture and behavior. Regardless of color, a young man walking slowly down the street with seemingly no purpose immediately puts me on guard. Another behavior that always alerts me to possible danger is an unflinching stare. Every young woman dreads walking by the construction site or vehicle filled with men who have the gaul to make sexually suggestive remarks at them. When this behavior is displayed on a routine basis, prejudice becomes inevitable. The reality is that certain behaviors are displayed overwhelmingly by certain groups and not by others. I have been propositioned for sex while walking my dog in baggy clothing only by young black men in their cars. Never by white men, or Asian men, or women, or old black men, Hispanic men, or any other group.
There is sensitivity to racial issues, and then there is naivety. Is there a way to test someone for prejudice based on posture and behavior rather than simply skin color or clothing? I feel the type of prejudice I hold is important to my personal safety. I believe this radio discussion was much too oversimplified and qualifies as the kind of material that stirs up guilt and anger for a lot of people, unfortunately dividing listeners rather than encouraging conversations.

Sent by Laura Tally | 2:44 PM | 7-31-2008

Gee do black Americans perceive whites as bad dancers when they see them? Probably. So what? This whole subject is half-baked and has little substance. It so happens that perhaps statistically many black Americans and black American culture has a thuggish and macho style and this style itself can be seen as threatening. So to say if you see ANY black American walking down the street you are going to be afraid---I don't think so. You might be afraid if you see someone with the mannerisms and style of a black gangster or a white gangster on the street and feel afraid. It just so happens black American culture has largely adopted a style and culture that is perceived as threatening so statistically you are more likely to feel threatened by seeing a black American. I think most black Americans would also be afraid if they see someone who looks like white trash walking down the street. No?

Are white Americans afraid of black women walking down the street? This subject is incredibly overreaching.

Sent by SIM | 2:52 PM | 7-31-2008

To Mike in Cincinnati,

You have to ask yourself this; if your friend had been raped by two different white men, would you (or her) have unreasonable apprehensions towards all white men or all white people? The problem lies in generalizing the actions or behavior of one or a few to an entire class of people.

Should we fear all white people because Ted Bundy was white?

Sent by Steve in Kansas City | 2:54 PM | 7-31-2008

I think I am more prejudiced now than when I was younger because it is just easier to conform to the norm. Until high school I had no frame of reference since I did not encounter anyone I thought of as "different". In high school and then college I was suddenly in a very mixed population of groups that self segregated, but I didn't know why. I assumed it was a social convention that I was not aware of. What I was aware of was the number of times I encountered people who were flummoxed or even upset that I did not see them as different from myself and actually commented on it to me.

Now, in my 50s, I think of other people as different, based on their probable life experience and how different it must have been from mine, but that means I am making assumptions and judgments based on stereotypes.

Sent by Kate | 2:55 PM | 7-31-2008

A: To avoid misunderstanding, I am convinced that racism is among the deepest and most important of America's problems. It has interfered with getting us educated, and with doing the things as a society which will be necessary to adapt and survive coming world crises and conflicts.

B: Try this: Take a child who is no older than a year or two. Present her or him with a smiling adult. How do you think that kid will respond. Did I specify race? Does the kid notice?

Answer: Kids sure don't seem to notice, and I've seen a lot of cross-racial encounters. What do you think accounts for this?

Sent by davy B | 2:59 PM | 7-31-2008

Was it Sam Clemens who said "travel is fatal to prejudice and bigotry"? My maternal grandma, born 1900 in rural Texas, like most WASPs (white anglo saxon protestants), used the "N" word to describe those humans with the higher melanin content, a/k/a "blacks."

She didn't travel much, and when I was 12, living with her for the summer, Louis Armstrong came to San Antonio, and my eldest cousin invited me to attend with her and her date.

"MoMo" said "no," and pressed for the reason, she said no to all my questions - was it the cost (I saved enough for the ticket), the danger (I was with two adults), the music (jazz being "unchristian"). When it dawned on me to ask "is it because he's black?" her silence was my answer. Outraged, thanks to my dad's (the "NY Jew") adamant warning to never use the "N" word again, my protests won her over.

Years later, visiting MoMo from college, she stopped our chat to comment on the actor entering the set on General Hospital: "Danny, that 'Nigra doctor' is just as smart as any white doctor I've ever met!"

Go figure!


I'm half cracker, half bagel by birth, but I'm 1/2 tortilla and 1/2 cornbread through and through.

Anyone know of any studies into the effects of dogma on developing humans' neuronal networks? I think any dogma implanted in such youngster's brains by those who are in the parental role force a conflict between intuitive reason and irrational faith that irrational fictions are true. Helpless to deny the authority, children resolve the conflict by compromising their own self-confidence, and curiosity, and begin to view reality differently. Conversely, the products of non-dogma home environs tend to have fully developed powers to reason and hence form a reality based on the healthy fear of only rational threats, and a healthy love of the unknown - which I see as "air" to the mind, as oxygen is to the body.

Sent by dan bass | 3:04 PM | 7-31-2008

As a white Detroiter, perhaps I can help the caller. I too am frustrated that so many blacks reflexively support Mayor Kilpatrick. But I try to bear in mind that Kilpatrick has done some good things, and that blacks have good historical reasons to be suspicious of the US legal system and the media. But the most heartening thing to see is
(black) prosecutor Kym Worthy's performance in announcing the charges against the Mayor, and the quality of her responses in the press conference that followed. All this can be found on YouTube under "Kym Worthy." She makes you proud to be an American, black or white!

Sent by John H | 3:11 PM | 7-31-2008

Laure, please see if this makes sense.

There are problems about how we talk about "race." One is the problem of generalizing among people with a similar physical appearance. This is the obvious skin-color thing.

Alongside this is the related issue of culture. Americans are often not educated to understand that different groups of people have different habitual lifeways. They speak differently and interact differently. One group's insult is another group's joshing around.

Class is a kind of s1/4ulture. In working-class communities, you often find men's behaviors which middle-class people inhibit. For middle-class people, those behaviors are unfamiliar, and can easily seem rude or scary. In the other direction, middle-class behavior can seem stuck-up or arrogant.

So, Laura, not to pick on you, I would ask you to watch and see how the neighborhood black women respond to a bunch of black guys hooting and propositioning them. Do they seem casually dismissive, or sometimes playful? Do Italian women know how to handle Italian mashers on the street in Naples? Are American women horrified and scared by them?

Laura, have you ever walked through an Irish-American or Italian-American working class neighborhood, or past a work site where those are the workers instead of black men? Is there a similarity?

Are these objectionable behaviors because of race, or are they kind of standard operating procedure in an unfamiliar community of class or culture that you weren't socialized to?

None of this should be taken to mean that I think there aren't predators out there, or that I think women shouldn't be free to go about their business without being molested. Of course sometimes some men are scary, and of course sometimes women of any class or culture, or race, will be and should be frightened. That's not the topic today, is all.

Is this direction of discussion okay?

Sent by davy B | 3:23 PM | 7-31-2008

Yo dan bass! Right on!

In your PPS, I think you are on to something profound. I do think there is a psycho-neurology to be identified along the lines you sketch.

Your observations about development and learned bigotry may be more applicable in a cosmopolitan culture. The "primitive" nature of humans probably has some built-in potentials for recognizing insiders vs outsiders, and for forming fears and prejudices. But since we live in a (potentially) cosmopolitan, sophisticated culture, the "primitive" can be neuronally outstripped.

Sent by davy B | 3:35 PM | 7-31-2008

In Baltimore/Washington our black elected officials seem to uphold racists' low expectations of them, making even the most open-minded of us cynical. Mayor Barry was caught smoking crack in the Mayflower Hotel; Shelia Dixon, the mayor of Baltimore accepts fur coats for votes; and sees no impropriety in giving a huge housing contract to a man she takes weekend trips with; and she sees no conflict of interest or need to disclose. Ulysess Currie, Maryland State Senator was paid over 1/4 million to 'consult' for Shoppers Food Warehouse; he too did not disclose that troublesome little detail. Unfortunately for black elected officals who are honest, these are the cases that stick in the mind.

Sent by MO | 3:40 PM | 7-31-2008

If the country's forefathers could have foreseen the consequences of the African slave trade; I'm quite certain they would have paid some Mexicans or Indonesians to do the work.

Sent by Sue | 3:46 PM | 7-31-2008

I was in the car when the show was airing today but was inspired to express my opinion nonetheless.

I don't wish to diminish the role which race plays in contemporary prejudices but it has been nearly half a century since the Civil Rights laws were passed and I think most of us have moved on. I don't harbor any race based prejudice. I was taught to believe otherwise when I was growing up and have simply known too many people in positive experiences from the time I was a child to have any race based prejudices.

This show might have been more valuable if you had focused on the implicit prejudices present in all aspects of social interaction. People have all sorts of preconceived notions which affect their social interactions on a daily basis. People make all kinds of judgements about others on the spur of the moment which are inaccurate and unwarranted but they nevertheless do it without even thinking about it. They do it instinctively.

Your show today would have been more interesting had you not made the focus exclusively on race but on how human implicit prejudices influence people's social interactions and judgements about others on a daily basis.

Sent by Jack | 3:59 PM | 7-31-2008

Just last week I walked into a bank where I saw a young black man conversing with a banker. The term 'overdraft fees' immediately popped into my head.

No doubt, this is shameful, but I couldn't help it; it was my initial reaction.

Sent by Patrick | 4:13 PM | 7-31-2008

This segment was introduced using the phrase "color blind." Overlooking a core part of a person whether it be ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, etc. is bigotry in itself.Ignoring differences breeds fear and misunderstanding; a truly open minded person will f celebrate the uniqueness of all people for everything they are, even if it is not the same as themselves.

Sent by Kirbi Doty | 4:51 PM | 7-31-2008

I wish (people) would wake up and see that African-Americans are human beings too. We are not animals,monsters or demons. We want to contribute to society just like everyone else. We don't like crime anymore than anyone else does. I am sick and tired of being stereotyped.

Sent by George Bush Mustgo | 6:02 PM | 7-31-2008