Even though the notion that the US is “post-racial” has been pretty thoroughly trounced, we still hear people claim to be colorblind and that they treat everyone the same. The purpose of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People is to expose the large set of biases all of us have hidden in our brains and to show how those “bits of knowledge about groups of people” (their skin color, age, education or religion) can influence behavior.
You may have heard of the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (IATs). Available online for almost 20 years, they were created by Blindspot’s authors to prove that it is “unconscious cognition,” rather than conscious thought that drives human judgment and behavior. The 10 minute exercises test the taker’s attitudes, one’s positive and negative associations, about groups of people. The data from over 14 million IATs show the disconnect between what “good people” believe about themselves and the reality of their implicit attitudes. Among the many attitudes studied, results reveal that in this country the preference for White people is pervasive, that we favor young over old (this is one of the strongest biases in our culture), and that we prefer straight people over gay people.
Blindspot, like Crossroads’ Critical Cultural Competency workshop, shows how constant input from our culture shapes our attitudes and gives examples of how, when we’re unaware of them, we can engage in behavior that is damaging to others. The authors point to studies in which people with higher levels of preference for Whites judged White job applicants to be better qualified than Black applicants and where ER physicians recommended optimal treatment more often to White patients than to Blacks. While both these studies refer to the preference for White people over Black, the authors cite numerous examples of unequal treatment to Hispanics, Asians, Muslims and American Indians.
In the discussion of stereotypes, which we all form and use, the authors state that the more one can be described by the default attributes of one’s society, those that Crossroads calls normative, the less one will be subject to stereotyping. And conversely, the fewer dominant culture characteristics one possesses, the more likely one is to be stereotyped, by others, and also by oneself. As just two examples of the negative effects of internalized stereotyping, the authors point to elders who unconsciously influence their declining health and women who underperform in STEM professions. (A recent preventative medicine study, which uses results from the Race IAT, measures the role of internalized stereotypes in the aging process. Study: In Black Men, Internalized Racism Speeds Up Aging)
While it can be discouraging to be confronted with our own hidden biases and to understand how unconsciously we behave towards others, the good news is that just being aware of the problem is the beginning of fixing it. The authors devote an entire chapter to ways in which we can spot behaviors that result in damage to people in stereotyped groups and what we can do to outsmart our implicit associations. It’s impossible to be truly color blind, but this book can help us to be intentional about treating everyone with the dignity and respect we all want.
Blindspot is a thorough and compelling argument for getting in touch with one’s individual biases. It’s pretty clear, though, that the authors view this connection as just a first step. In the body of the book, they cover a short history of the study of racism in the US. And, in addition to the race IAT, which first established the widespread preference for White people over People of Color, the authors discuss the consistent implicit associations with Americans as White People, topics that would logically lead to a discussion of racism. It’s in the 40 page appendix that the book shows its true goal—to open up that discussion. Here the authors cover the history of racism in the 20th century and its current levels in the US; causes and examples of racial and ethnic disadvantage (in criminal justice, education, health care and housing, to name just a few); and continued racial segregation. Because they are social scientists, they come at racism from the perspective of scientific studies. One hopes, one yearns, for a next book, which could cover studies about research that shows positive outcomes in dismantling racism.