The Psychology of Invisible Prejudice

My academic project leaves me very little time to reflect on current events or to comment in public on them. But I take up pen in this instance to provide a short stab at what I take to be one of the most fundamental misunderstanding in the ongoing conversation on interethnic reconciliation. On the one hand, white Americans don’t tend to think of themselves as racist and don’t ascribe racist motivations to their actions. On the other hand, minorities see very clearly the lingering racism, prejudice, and privilege. Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Perhaps I can provide one step toward it (there are certainly other aspects that need to be addressed).

My research has enabled me to dip my toe into the emerging research on the “adaptive unconscious” (Timothy Wilson’s terminology). The adaptive unconscious is roughly our lower level cognition especially at the level of perception, involving filtering white noise and  reflex evaluations of our surroundings. There is a strong link between our lower cognition and our emotional states (see Jesse Prinz). So, for instance, lower cognition enables my to be “aware” of dangers and react before I am even conscious of them. The difficulty with lower cognition is that it has a complicated relationship with our conscious thought. For instance, I talked with a man recently who had debilitating fear of barking dogs as a result of an attack as a child, but could not “think his way out of it.” The “irrationality” of our fears is no reason for us not to have them, since they operate at another level of our consciousness. Some people talk about this as the intentionality of the body (e.g. Merleau-Ponty).

So, to make a step toward reconciling the opposing views. I suspect that the many white Americans who say they are not racist are being sincere in the sense that they do not consciously entertain ideas of inferiority towards other racial or ethnic groups. But, at the level of the body, or at the level of their lower consciousness, the fear and disdain may exist very plainly and visibly to others. This is not insignificant. Our gut reactions to others form a major aspect of social intercourse. We like people who are “open” and “warm”, even though we may not be able to say explicitly what we mean by these metaphors. What we mean by “open” may be 1,000 small types of behavior, speech, or expression that are hard to specify. Minorities can face a world where nearly all of the people they come into contact with on a daily basis are “closed” and “cold,” or hostile. And conscious intentional hostility is not the only type that produces violence. Our heads say we are open and welcoming, but our bodies and our hands may tell a different tale.

So, are the police officers who have been in the news racist? They certainly are reacting with excessive force. Even if their thinking is not prejudiced (though perhaps it is), their bodies 2016-07-12 11.27.48 am.pngare. And this state of affairs is legitimately terrifying and sometimes deadly for those against whom this prejudice is directed. I grieve the lives these officers have taken.

So what can be done about invisible prejudice? The raises another feature of our “body-intentionality,” that it is largely affected by our experience. How did my friend fight his fear of dogs? He held puppies. It is absolutely essential for building racial peace for all of us to intermingle our lives with those who are different from us. We must experience the humanity of the other through hospitality to teach ourselves to love. We cannot be content with affirmations of equality but no bodily action. The role of the Christian church in this is especially important. We must take seriously our responsibility to build diverse, hospitable communities that are capable of ministering reconciliation both on a Spiritual and social level. We are to be a city set on a hill, a City of God where there is one body, as well as one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Tolkien: on whether or not he was “Aryan”

Scot McKnight posted this response written by Tolkien to Hitler’s administration on the occasion of them asking him if he were Aryan:

25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and

remain yours faithfully,

J. R. R. Tolkien

Read more from the original post at Open Culture.

Musings on Social Judgments

It is widely acknowledged that even people who believe that they are not racist, sometimes demonstrate implicit racism, which is deeply hurtful to those who experience it. One such place where implicit racism is manifest is in social settings where new introductions are being made (such as church or occasions for business networking), where there are abundant opportunities for forging new relationships. But these opportunities are often are undeveloped. The reasons for this are complex, but seem to consist of the following factors: 1) humans have the capacity for a limited number of intimate relationships; 2) we make contact with a much higher number of people than we have capacity to know intimately; 3) as a result we develop the skill of screening our social contacts, that is, assessing what relationships we would like (cautiously) to develop. People limit their relationships to the number of people that they think they can handle.

This screening behavior seems to be largely subconscious, though people sometimes do talk about it. But insofar as this remains a subconscious activity, the reasons that underlie our judgments (in the philosophical sense) remain mysterious. I contend that this is a significant area where racism remains in our society. But racism can be only one facet of this judgment. The answers to the standard questions also go into the judgment: What do you do? Where are you from? How long have you lived here/done this? What brings you here? We all have predispositions for answering the question, “would this person be worth knowing better?”

Two other factors that contribute to our social judgments are beauty and competence. “Uglyism” or “Dumbism” seem to be as problematic as racism, but without the well defined boundary markers. I remember a particular example while in seminary when I was working at Wells Fargo Bank. A good looking and intelligent customer was making a transaction with a coworker who did not match his looks or intelligence. She made a joke to him and he stopped what he was doing, looked her in the eye, and said, “you’re not cute.” It always struck me that this comment could be taken as a double entendre. He explicitly meant “witty” or “funny,” but implicitly meant “attractive.” In other circumstances, this customer was more than willing to joke with my other more attractive coworker.

I hope that these musings may push us to think of the hundreds of little judgments we make every day, and particularly with respect to our personal connections. It is worth asking whether the ease with which we transition in and out of relationships with people is not problematic. Perhaps it would be better to restrict our circles of contact somewhat in order to treat well even those who might otherwise fail our screening process.

Further, there is something to be said about the fact that these little judgments mean so much to us. Entire industries are driven by the urge to pass these judgments (health, surgery, teeth, education, etc.). And when we do not pass these judgments, we often assign reasons for it which soften our culpability: this person is prejudiced or they don’t really know me. Ultimately, we all want to fall under the right verdict. There is something profoundly calming in reflecting on the nature of Christian salvation, which includes both justification (divinely initiated positive verdict) and sanctification (divinely initiated process of renewal). These two elements can provide a powerful antidote to the drive for self-justification in that the first provides a positive verdict in the middle of our personal histories and the second provides hope for transformation.