Monday, April 14, 2008

Racism: More than Meets the Eye

By Becky Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Racism is typically presented in one of two ways: personal, which considers racial animus to be the source of discrimination and therefore disparities, and structural, which examines how our social structures and institutions are arranged to confer opportunity inequitably. Along the lines of the former, there are a number of online tests such as the Shooter Effect quiz or Implicit Association Test (IAT) that purportedly determine if one is racist, and precisely to what extent. While these tests are interesting and I can’t resist taking them myself, I also recognize there is one serious component missing that is typically required in any psychological experiment- processing. Now to be fair the IAT has a blurb on the gateway page which directs the test taker to more information about the test, and cautions that they make no claim regarding the validity of the interpretations they present at the end, but otherwise the subject is left with little or no opportunity to explore his or her results, and the larger implications they have in society.

This is problematic because for test takers, the quiz situates racism solely in the realm of the psychological. Certainly it is beyond the scope of the tests to initiate a comprehensive dialogue on racial disparities, but my concern is that without processing their results or receiving additional information, test takers will walk away with the assumption that personal racism is the sole source of discrimination in society. This criticism works the other way too -- a narrow focus on structural racism will mask the role of the individual, psychological state on the construction of a racialized society. Instead we need to move one step further in understanding the link between the individual, psychological existence of bias, and the physical actualization of it in our society.

Just as we cannot separate structures and institutions from the individuals who construct and uphold them, we cannot examine individual’s conscious and subconscious thoughts on race without also understanding the physical context in which they were formulated. Understanding prejudice and bias as a circular, mutually constructive phenomenon between the psychological and the physical necessitates intervention on multiple levels. We must continue to work to create arrangements which equitably confer opportunity to all, but we also must simultaneously understand the role of our mental representations in constructing this racialized society. Without this multi-level understanding and intervention we’ll be left shaking our heads in surprise at our test results indicating the presence of racial bias in our psyche, while simultaneously wondering why racial disparities remain deeply entrenched in our society.

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