Tim Wise followup: Implicit Preference?

Harvard University has a series of tests of implicit assumptions people make, under the aegis of Project Implicit.

I took a couple of the demo tests, the African American – European American IAT and the Gender – Science IAT. According to the tests, I have a slight automatic preference for black people over white people, and moderate association of male with science and female with liberal arts.

If you register and follow the link to the research side of the project, you get different tests. One of the ones I took was whether I have a preference for “lucky” people. For example, one guy got run over by a bus, while another won a car in a raffle. It turns out I have no preference.

I am occasionally amazed at how preferences develop, and how our unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, preferences affect the decisions we make and the assumptions we act on.

Upper middle class PTA leaders assume that the people around them grew up the same way they did, and it never occurs to them that one of their number grew up poor. We get something of a break on the religious issue, because there are enough Muslims, Jews and Bhuddists to avoid the automatic assumption that everyone is Christian, but they were shocked to find a Wiccan. (Atheists don’t even surprise even the most Christian among them.) They assume that, because they want to “protect” their daughter from information about sexuality so that she’ll wait until marriage, that I want the same thing, and am trying to provide the same “protection.” In fact, the most shocking thing I think I’ve ever said to another parent was that I hoped my daughter would learn a lot about sex, so that she could make her own choices. I hope she’ll wait until she’s old enough to know her own mind, but I would be surprised and concerned if she committed to a marriage with no experience at all. From the look on that mom’s face, you’d have thought I was pimping my daughter.

People do have preferences about who they like being around. We build “tribes” around common interests, both online and offline. I value diversity, and I also value shared goals and aspirations. Building those communities based on expressed preferences is healthy. Picking your associates based on your assumptions, particularly assumptions about skin color and gender isn’t tribalism, it’s racism and sexism.

I’m fortunate to have grown up in a racially mixed environment, and to have been exposed to both poverty and wealth. While I could have made different choices and gotten a better technical education, I think having a liberal arts background has made me a wider person.

So to torture the metaphor at the end of Tim Wise’s talk, I recognize the stinking pot of two-day-old gumbo, and I’m willing to help clean up. The problem is, I don’t think I know how to clean it. I’m inclined to throw it out, but I fear replacing the pot would be expensive, and dangerous.

So, watch the talk, and think about the problem. If you have ideas for how to clean the pot, I’d like to hear them.

Explore posts in the same categories: Communication, STScI

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