Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People

blindspot

In a new book,  Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and University of Washington social psychologist Anthony Greenwald assert that in modern day America, prejudice comes NOT from a hatred of certain groups, but of a preference of one’s own personal in-groups.

“Discrimination today is less about treating people from other groups badly, DiTomaso writes, and more about giving preferential treatment to people who are part of our “in-groups.”

In theory that sounds very nice:  people don’t really hate other people; they just like some people more!

Which is all fine and dandy until you recognize that an “in-group” includes people of one’s own race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  

Let’s say a black person and a white person interview for the same job.  If the interviewer is white, he/she will likely feel an urge to give preferential treatment to the white interviewee.  How is that different from the white interviewer feeling animosity toward the black interviewee?

Let’s say a white man and a white woman interview for the same job.  If the interviewer is a white man, he has even more “in-group” connections with the man interviewee, and therefore will likely feel an urge to give even more preferential treatment to the man interviewee.  Is that better than the interviewer outright disliking the woman interviewee?

Here’s my problem with this theory.  It’s 2013, and I live in the United States of America.  There are very few places here where you can walk around and proudly announce (or even quietly admit) that you are racist.  Or sexist.  Or homophobic.  Or whatever.  We’re supposed to be past all of that.  So if you were to ask people if they are any of those things, I am sure most would say, “No, of course not!”  But does that make it true?  Or even still, what if they aren’t lying?

What if people don’t even know that they are, in fact, ____-ist?   They don’t want black people to drink from a separate water fountain or anything, but when they see a black man on the local news who is a suspect of a crime, they pretty much assume he did it.

Or as the example from the article points out, maybe it’s elitism?  Or classism?  A woman in the ER cut her hand and was receiving care.  She told the doctor she was a quilter and worried about her ability to continue quilting after her accident.  But then, someone recognized the woman as a Yale Professor and suddenly the best hand-specialist in the area was called in to help.

Whether one groups people as “bad” and “good” or “good” and “better,” the result is the same.  Discrimination.  Just because our country isn’t as vocal and obvious about its prejudices and discrimination as it once was doesn’t make it less prevalent.  As the article points out,

“In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?”

From a psychological standpoint, I understand why one would want to know why discrimination happens, but I’m afraid that if we decide to call it something else (from “prejudice” to “favoritism”) than we will stop fighting to end it.

“Greenwald and Banaji are not suggesting that people stop helping their friends, relatives and neighbors. Rather, they suggest that we direct some effort to people we may not naturally think to help.” 

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