Implicit Bias: The Doll Test…

I tried to watch the vice-presidential debate last night, but only lasted through the first hour before my body began sending the undeniable signals that continued consciousness would not be permitted. But before I pulled my bedraggled body off to the bedroom I was still there in front of the television to hear Gov. Pence use that most dangerous deflection of the reality of implicit bias, the notion that bias could not have been involved in the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte because one of the officers was African-American.

Before getting to the deeper issues involved, the horrific truths of implicit bias at the institutional and societal societal levels, lets look at the historical context of that phrase. It goes right along with a history of white deflection of bigotry, with phrases like, “some of my best friends are black,” and “I just don’t see color,” as though those statements, even if consciously believed offered some sort of immunity from the effects of history. It is right there with the belief that private clubs admitting a small number of people of color somehow erases a legacy of bigotry, that having a black neighbor somehow inoculates a community from the practices and reality of economic discrimination. Indeed is part of a pattern of deflecting white guilt and complicity that only serves as psychological balms to those who do not bears the weight of discrimination.

But Gov. Pence’s assertion is perhaps far more dangerous, more ignorant, and more insipidly racist. Implicit bias is not simply another term of overt bigotry; it is not merely a bias against someone or something. It reveals itself most dangerously in the compounding of effects, a dual process of bias toward one thing and against another. We can see this so clearly in the classic study know as The Doll Test, in which young children, black and white, show a clear association of typically good characteristics (being good, smart, pretty, etc) with white dolls or drawings and of bad characteristics (bad, dumb, ugly) with dark-skinned dolls and drawings.

What this study reveals is just how ingrained these assumptions are at the societal level, which then clearly filters down and through every aspect of life in America. It also shows how early this process starts, how the constant stream of stereotypes and messages at every level produce very real life. From media messages to subtle cues (being called on less in class, rates of and types of punishment in school, disproportionate rates of traffic stops, and on and on) send very clear signals to people of all colors. This is implicit bias; it is a psychological effect that though unconscious is very real and plays itself out in the psyches of all of us regardless of race.

In Gov. Pence dismissing the notion of implicit bias by citing the fact that one of the officers involved in the Charlotte shooting he is not simply revealing his ignorance, he is not simply demonstrating his ignorance, quite possible a willful ignorance, he is giving license to white Americans to simply dismiss the very idea of systemic discrimination. With his words he offered a free pass to those who do not want to address the realities of American life, and even worse handed out a memo to those who actively endorse bigotry. In saying that a black officer (or teacher, or any other citizen) cannot carry the effects of institutional bias is yet another form of whitewashing, is to exploit the skin color and bodies of just those people who bear the burden of a bigoted society. In fact it is predicated on denying the essential humanity of people of color, to ignore the complex psychological realities that come with being African American today. In short, his words are exemplars of a profound racism.

It is that same deep racism that allows us all to justify the shooting of unarmed black men by the police by delving into the inner-thoughts of the shooters, what they may have felt or feared, while reducing the victims to mere bodies, the actions taken or not taken. It is just that dehumanizing bias that dismisses any thought to the fear felt when guns are pointed at you. It is just that dehumanization that permits a mistake, a misjudgment on the part of officers, but attributes blame to the slightest misstep (perceived or real) on the behalf of the victim.

And it is all of this that allows for an officer in a helicopter to assert that an unarmed African-American man looks like a “bad dude.” The effects of implicit and institutional bias are written out on the unconscious minds of all of us and lend a patina of intuitive truth to those who support more explicit acts of bigotry. But it is on the bodies and minds of people of color that the egregious effects are felt.


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