Don't Race to Judgment
For Joyce Thomas of Washington, D.C., it was a minor fender bender between her Lexus and a Jeep Wrangler at a downtown stop sign on the rainy night before Thanksgiving. Thomas, African-American and 60, calmly offered to exchange insurance information with the 30-something white male driving the Jeep. "Nobody got hurt; let's just take care of this and move on," she said. "You people!" he lashed out at her with a hostility she understood as a racial slur. "You always want to get away with something!" he accused.
It was a real-life " Crash moment." That phrase--popularized earlier this year when Oprah Winfrey was snubbed at a Paris Hermes store--derives from the movie Crash, which examines how seemingly negligible incidents between people of different skin colors can suddenly explode into violent racial confrontations. Or maybe update that to a "Katrina moment," for the debate about the tardy government response to the mostly poor, black citizens trapped by the storm. It's never easy to pinpoint where misfortune ends and racism begins. But there are ways to assess your own potential biases before confrontation happens.
"A lot of people think prejudice is so yesterday," says Princeton psychology Prof. Susan Fiske, "but there is much more unconscious and subtle prejudice in the air than the average person thinks." It even shows up in brain scans: Fiske has found that the area of the brain associated with emotional vigilance lights up more frequently when white people view yearbook photos of unfamiliar black, as opposed to white, students.
A match game. "We have biases--every one of us," says Harvard's Mahzarin Banaji. If you don't believe her, take the Implicit Association Test (at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit or at tolerance.org ), which she helped create as a tool to understand stereotypes that exist below our conscious awareness. You're asked to pair, as quickly as you can, different sets of words and faces flashing across the computer screen. The results--approximately 4 million people have taken a Web version of the test--are often not what the test-taker expected, uncovering automatic (implicit) unconscious associations that are contrary to the tester's stated, conscious (explicit) beliefs. Banaji herself owns up to feeling "humbled" by her test results, which showed she unconsciously favored white over black, young over old, and associated females with home rather than work.
Even though such attitudes reside beneath the surface, they have the potential to bubble up--and progress from there. "Stereotypes are not static," says Steve Wessler, who founded the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence after heading, for most of the 1990s, the Civil Rights Unit in the attorney general's office in Maine. "If you're stereotyping a person of color in negative ways and not thinking of him or her as an individual, it makes it much easier to treat that person poorly. I don't think that I investigated a hate crime at a school that did not begin with the lower level of slurs and stereotypes and then escalated."
Which is why coming face to face with those underlying assumptions is an important first step toward challenging--and then possibly changing--them. If we regard our unconscious bias "as errors in the sense that they make us go in ways that are inconsistent with where we want to go," says Banaji, we can also learn to readjust and correct those errors, just as we would if we started driving too fast or took a wrong turn. Doing so might just help avoid a crash--and a Crash moment, too.
What to say when...
When racial slurs remain unchecked, people are conditioned to accept them, say Pat Boland and Brian Willoughby of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Speaking up sends the opposite message. The organization's free book, Speak Up! includes tips on how to respond:
When a family member tells racist jokes: Appeal to family ties: "I value our relationship, but those remarks are putting a lot of distance between us."
When a friend from a different background makes a hurtful comment: Gather your composure, and try to open a dialogue: "We've been friends for a while, which is why I need to talk to you about what you just said."
When a colleague says you've said or done something offensive: Be open, not defensive: "Working well with you is important to me. Please tell me what I need to do."
On the Web: Tolerance.org and Understandingprejudice.org
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.