I’ve always marked the ‘Caucasian/white’ box in surveys.  That’s what my skin color is, despite a couple non-European ethnicities in my history.  I look white, and I grew up about as white-bread American as you get (despite frequently visiting Hawaiian relatives on various Hawaiian islands).  I was made further aware of my whiteness by those same Hawaiian relatives; the contest was always ‘who’s darker’ and I would always lose despite a tendency to tan quickly.  As I’ve aged, I’ve lost that ability.  Though I don’t tend to burn, I also don’t tend to darken, making me pale year-round.

Which is, perhaps the reason why I am biased in thinking in white terms and being more familiar with white features.  Consciously, I cringe at the thought of showing a bias, but it’s inevitable.  When I read fantasy, for example, I imagine characters as being variations of white with variations of white features.  No matter my intentions, I am almost always surprised to find out a character doesn’t have those features.  Even Ursula K. Leguin’s stories — where she firmly writes worlds where dark-skinned people are the overwhelming majority — I tend to assume white and have that sense of dissonance when her words correct what I had envisioned.

Similarly, there are stereotypes attached to cultures and associated ethnicities that people (including myself) constantly exploit with humor.  In these jokes, it’s pretty much unheard of for the people who are different to come across as better.  Instead, they are usually debased in some way, with the slant of strange being bad.  In worse cases, these groups are presented as stupid and hapless, doomed to repeat unsavory behaviors.  I would not suggest that humor be censored indiscriminately, but in friends and loved ones I’ve seen sometimes a sort of comfort in that type of humor develop.  Unless you take a step back and think about it, the behavior the jokes makes fun of is believed to be negative.  Eventually, the group themselves becomes inferior.

I’ve fallen victim to this, off and on, though I try to be honest with myself and my thinking and cut out parts of it where I can.  But, it remains that different cultural beliefs and behaviors do remain strange to me (no matter how objective I might try to be!), and while I will always want to be open to the diversity in the world, there’s always going to be that unconscious part of me that recoils from strange things.

IAT Test

“Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

While I believe this to be true (as I believe my automatic bias is European white over everything else), I would be interested to seeing the test done with the positive words aligned with the African American side, and negative words aligned with the European white side first.  I wonder if they experimented with that?

I do wonder, though, how I would be if I had grown up with media that had a greater focus on human diversity.  I do believe that the inclinations of society impact how a person feels.  As an example, I have very dark brown hair and dark brown eyes — I have always resented the stereotype that blonde-haired, blue-eyed people (especially women) are more attractive, valuable, or have more fun.  Yet, inevitably, I always wind up comparing myself with blonde-haired, blue-eyed women in some bizarre attempt to see if they are better than me.  Bizarre, because those things are hugely preference based and I do not consciously believe hair and eye color have anything to do with anything.  And yet, to this day, there’s that little niggling sense at the back of my mind.

I am always more curious about people who appear or act differently than I do because, I believe, difference is something humans are predisposed to notice.  But, in my own personal moral view, as long as you try to treat people fairly and not assume your own culture is automatically better (be it conscious or unconscious), then there isn’t anything wrong with noticing those differences, or laughing at some jokes.  The key is to be understanding, and accepting that not everyone has the same values and beliefs as you.  There’s a tendency for different to be considered bad, but it really doesn’t have to be.

Conclusion

Awareness is key.  Being conscious of your behavior, your thoughts, and your feelings in addition to the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of others is necessary in treating people like people, as opposed to slotting others into categories of superior or inferior.  Otherwise, it is entirely likely that an implicit bias will lead you to unconsciously, and then consciously, considering people to be inferior by virtue of them not being like you.

I saw this behavior occur with my ex-fiance.  He loved telling jokes about Alaskan Natives.  Those jokes were based on some behaviors he saw but did not think through contextually.  For many Alaskan Natives, homelessness and alcoholism is part of a larger problem due to circumstances out of their control when they were younger.  Many have an accent.  He did not know any personally, or know of any through contact with other people (besides people I knew at work, but since I didn’t often talk about work he didn’t get much context from me).  And yet, listening to his jokes eventually turn into negative ramblings and insulting humor, I began to get the distinct impression that he had somehow become racist.  When I confronted him with this (and the word ‘racism’ in particular), he would become defensive and immediately blurt out denials.  However, whenever he saw an Alaskan Native person, he would immediately say something negative or hurtful in an aside to me.

There was a disconnect for him between that behavior and his conscious ideas about what is and is not morally acceptable.  He did not outwardly consider racism to be okay, and yet he never had anything positive to say about Alaskan Natives, often heavily implying that they were a problem or that they should go back to where they came from.  If he was consciously listening to himself, and open to the idea that he was displaying a heavy bias against them, perhaps he might have tried to change how he associated them with negativity.

It’s the same for all of us, I suspect.  When we are unaware of our implicit biases, we are more likely to allow it to control our conscious thoughts and actions (even if those actions are only to maintain and spread hateful words).  However, being aware and desiring to be accepting of humanity is more likely to make anyone behave and think in a positive way towards other people.

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