After election night, a lot of people found themselves proclaiming, “I’m not racist!” or “I’m not sexist!” What a lot of people mean to say, I think, is that they are not knowingly or willingly prejudiced. However, because we live in the world we live in, almost all of us do hold biases against other people.
This is not to say that because we all have our biases, being prejudiced is somehow okay. This is also not to say that if we are all biased, then all groups experience equal discrimination—they certainly do not. But it does mean that, if we do want to have effective national conversations on race and gender, we need to be more honest about our own thoughts and behaviors.
Perhaps the biggest distinction that needs to be made is between implicit and explicit bias. Explicit attitudes are those you deliberately think about and report, while implicit attitudes are those that occur without conscious knowledge. Yet, one of the many problems contributing to America’s political divisiveness is disagreement over the very meaning of racism. As a Slate article reports, the public’s view of race is fundamentally different from what social scientists understand when they study race. While journalists decried racism in this election, most Americans did not see the same racism, at least as they understood the term—meaning explicit acts of discrimination.
Because we attend a very liberal school, a lot of us believe that we cannot possibly be racist or sexist while embodying the buzzwords we actively condemn. But even from my own experiences as a woman, I’ve noticed that some of the most well-intentioned men I know still cannot see women as equals, for example. Maybe even scarier, sometimes I myself still see women as lesser than men.
That is the problem of living in a racist and sexist society. Such beliefs are so deeply ingrained that to some extent almost everyone believes them, even the people who are being discriminated against.
Even President Obama said it: “When a guy's ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well that's okay. But when a woman suddenly does it, suddenly you're all like, 'Well, why's she doing that?’”
“I’m just being honest,” he added. Seriously, think about it. When a girl raises her hand in class a lot, it’s annoying. But have you ever thought of a guy, save for some truly weird and annoying people, as being annoying, just because he participates a lot? I would think of him as smart.
It’s also the small things that show the imbalance between men and women. If a girl hangs out with a bunch of guys, she’s cool. But if a guy hangs out with a bunch of girls, save for the dumb sexual jokes, he’s lame. Why do you think that a girl can say “hey guys” to a group of girls, but a guy can’t say “hey girls” to a group of guys? Masculinity is prized above femininity, and so a woman can “move up,” but it’s taboo for a man to move down.
So how can we improve as a school, as a society? Well, instead of pretending we are all bias-free, we need to recognize our own biases.
We can look to Germany as a good example: Germany today is extremely repentant of the Holocaust, and a core aspect of contemporary German culture is the acknowledgment and remembrance of the past. Not coincidentally, the German criminal justice system is much less punitive than ours. Ever since the Holocaust era, says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “[Germans] have internalized the nation’s capacity to do great harm to people who have been deemed outcasts and criminals in that country … exhibiting a far greater respect for human dignity."
Sometimes we are not even aware of our own prejudices, so here is a simple, very popular scientifically test to show your own biases: the Implicit Association Test from Harvard, which tests your implicit biases toward all kinds of people. The results might be scary, but you need to recognize them to improve. There is another simple question I ask myself from time to time as a spot test: Would I honestly think this particular way if she were a guy, or if they were white?
If I wouldn’t judge them for it if they were in the majority group, then it’s probably an unfair judgment on my part.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to expect people to be bias-free in a racist and sexist world. But what we can do is be responsible by recognizing our own biases and trying to override them. In order to heal as a nation, we will have to have real conversations, which means speaking honestly and acknowledging our shortcomings.
The other day, I was talking to a guy friend who was explaining how some girl had slept with a ton of guys. I asked him if he would judge a guy the same way if he slept with a ton of girls. “Honestly, probably not,” he said. “But I need to change that.” That, to me, was more valuable than any guy saying he’s “not sexist.” Because that was the truth.
Anna Raskind is a senior at Columbia College studying English. Annalytical runs alternate Fridays.
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