“Racism without Racists”

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?

13 thoughts on ““Racism without Racists”

  1. How about having a lengthy conversation about why it is that women are underrepresented in philosophy with a (male) philosopher known to have sexually harassed females in the department? In said conversation, the philosopher repeatedly laments how it is a shame that women don’t seem to make it like they do in other disciplines.

  2. Orlando, I addressed this comment as though it was sent to me personally. I doubt you’ll get that response.

    The situation you describe sounds to me very dangerous for any woman who doesn’t have tenure. So one thing we might address is what does one have in the way of survival strategies. That depends in part on other women in the department, to put it roughly. Does he have fans? Clearly, no one should be alone with him, but that might not be easy.

    Also, these guys are often pretty clever about what they are doing. They can flatter and cajole; they can start to sexualize a situation indirectly. And so on.

    Anyway, some beginning thoughts. Perhaps you were thinking more of the psychology of someone who creates and then dismisses victims? Or someone who appears to fail to see that making women sexual objects is not empowering them?

    That starts to raise the question I side-stepped. When do they become culpable for their ignorance?

  3. The comment was prompted by thinking about believing one isn’t a sexist while engaging in sexist behavior. Pretty clearly, this fellow has engaged in sexist behavior but feels comfortable expressing concern over sexism in his field. I’m guessing I’m not alone in having had this kind of oddly disconnecting conversation.

    Maybe, yes, he’s failing to see his behavior as sexist. And while it’d be tempting to see it as a particular blind spot (limited to harassment), the article you link to makes me think that sexism could permeate other areas, such as hiring practices, reviewing articles, etc.

    And the culpability question then becomes crucial. How can you make someone aware that they have a bias when they’re attributing their dislike, say, for a philosophical argument or political candidate, to something else?

  4. JJ, There’s no way you could fail to be angry about the sorts of experiences you’ve had! How awful. Just to pick oneself up and keep going after that kind of thing takes enormous fortitude. What to do? Always tough. I think the more we can teach about this the better– both about unconscious bias, and about how hard it is to be a recipient of it, day after day. I myself doubt that culpability discussions are very useful. It seems to me far more important to emphasise the *universality* of unconscious bias, and while that’s not incompatible with culpability, it’s probably a bit hard to push successfully for both at once, given people’s resistance to accepting blame and guilt for this sort of thing.

  5. Jender, I do think there is a general point about this as one way sexism can affect women; there’s a sense in which so many of us get erased both as part of the public record and as part of daily life. There just is little or no possibility of having an impact in too many ways. Oddly enough, I discovered an article this morning about women writers which makes this point, among others. The author notes, for example, the way in which women can be apologetic in introducing or discussing their work. She thinks there are several factors at work, including perhap particularly, how “bad” it is for women to have ambitions other than being a good wife and mother.

    See here:http://bitchmagazine.org/article/the-ambition-condition

  6. Opps, I also meant to say that your point about blame is important. It seldom works to change things. And perhaps it is a mark of how very deeply sexism goes that too many people don’t really seem to notice the extent to which women are missing.

  7. The social psychology experiments mentioned in the article brought to mind some studies I read about in How Would You Move Mount Fuji? by some Harvard psychologists. They found that five-second clips of teachers during a lecture – without any student reaction shots – were enough to provide “nearly the same” ratings as students who had been in the actual class all semester.

    Building off of those (shocking!) experiments, a group at Univ. of Toledo filmed nearly 100 job interviews and found that showing just the opening handshake to subjects was enough to provide ratings that “correlated strongly” with the interviewers’ actual ratings after the 15-20 minute interviews.

    (An excerpt from the book is available online; you can search down to “Two-Second Interview” for the specifics of these experiments. The whole book is really fun, though, so don’t hesitate to pick it up!)

    None of us are ready to admit that our impressions are so solidly formed in the first 15 seconds of a meeting, but it’s hard to argue with these sorts of studies. It’s also immensely frightening to me because it suggests that even those of us with egalitarian sensibilities are susceptible to the sort of racist or sexist reactions we’re shaking our head at here.

  8. Do you think your endorsement of this idea about rationalizing racist/sexist attitudes stands in any kind of interesting relationship to your feeling belittled by people saying that you yourself as a woman have certain predictable feelings towards other women (i.e. catty jealousy)?
    Are you concerned that you are more willing to attribute others’ feelings to structural/emotional/involuntary causes than you are your own?
    I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for disliking Palin, but there probably aren’t good reasons for insisting on one’s rationality etc. in these regards either. Things are what they are.

  9. I am having a hard time getting just where you are coming from, Andrew. “Things are what they are” means that everyone’s reactions are caused by factors out of their control, and there isn’t anything that can be done about it?

    I think that really is too facile a position, and the evidence is strongly against it. We may not be able fully to control how we feel about something, but critical self-examination can really make a huge difference in whether one judges or acts on how one feels.

    One of the concerns with unconscious racism is precisely that so many people believe they are not affected by it at all, so they don’t critically look at what they do and say. One aspect of feminist thought, at least philosophical feminist thought, is to examine crticially one’s attitudes toward other women.

  10. I think Andrew is still angry at his ex-girlfriend.
    speaking about catty jealousy, how about those two boys last night?
    this game is easy, but how do we disengage in a productive way? pointing out hypocracy rarely works, can be used against the person and is often exhausting.
    does focusing on possible biases keep us from learning how to change them? (how useful is logical debate here, especially when there is more instinct than proof?)
    these are genuine questions if anyone has ideas.
    also, how about obama’s referencing jfk last night? he can’t be unaware that the two are often compared. are there any female condidates who people associate with such a flattering icon?

  11. A bit of a tangent, but I’ve been reflecting on the three incidents / situations you describe in your post, and oddly, I find them reassuring. It is so tempting to believe that there is something wrong with me when things like this occur to me. But really, it’s not me – it’s systemic and widespread. It doesn’t make that sort of behaviour any more excusable, of course.

    Thanks for the stories. Time to pick myself up and carry on…

  12. Deborah, Thanks so much for telling me that. That’s really why I wrote it. When I realized that undermined it could make me feel, I thought it might help others in dealing with the same situations to at least feel they weren’t alone.

    We just have to keep going.

Comments are closed.