I’m quoting a problematic title from an op-ed piece by Kristof in today’s NY Times. “Racisms without Racists” is in many ways a gem, but it also brings up a sad fact about which one could get pretty angry.
The article is a calm, reasoned discussion of unconscious racism, what the author, Kristof, says scholars call “racism without racists” and “aversive racism.”
aversive racists feel doubts about a black person that they don’t feel about an identical white. “These doubts tend to be attributed not to the person’s race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience,” [Yale Professor Dovidio] added.
Still, a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination.
It is the sort of article I could imagine giving to colleagues and suggesting they put in “sexism” along with racism.
So maybe that’s sad, but why get angry? It is hardly cheering to see racial aversion in action, and it can get much worse. In academia where we are constantly evaluating pieces of work – of students, colleagues, applicants for positions, professional essays – and the unconscious bias results in a series of decisions about the relative merits of African American (or other minority) or women’s work. They are consistently judged inferior. And people who are making these judgements can generalize. They really do too often conclude that the work of that category is generally inferior. Even worse, they can conclude that there really isn’t any work in that field being done by blacks or women.
Let me add in three experiences I’ve had recently which are connected to this, since each reflected the capacity to believe one isn’t a sexist while engaging in sexist behavior. I’m probably exaggerating their effect, but I offer it as a warning for how these things can affect one. It is so important that we do not let them stop us.
1. Meeting with an administrator who has quite a bit of power over me; I take along a vastly junior male colleague. The administrator almost exclusively addresses the male colleague who is allow to speak; I can’t say two full sentences without being interrupted.
2. Discussion with another person in an administrative role. When I disagreed (firmly but hardly even very assertively) with him he told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and asked that I not come to any further meetings (so the meetings would be just all male).
3. Going to meet a new highly placed official at a very fancy party; he was intently discussing things with the men he was meeting, but when I was introduced as the head of an inter-institutional center, he immediately started to look for who else was in the room.
Well, never mind about the party. I ended up chatting with one of the very elderly medical stars of heart surgery, who didn’t know me from Eve, and who had lots of interesting stories.
But I have a huge project which I am trying to finish and think sometimes that after experiences like this it is hard to feel one exists. Nonsense! you may say. But after a life time of existing too often as this kind of shadow?