Are sexist, racist, homophobic or other forms of widespread prejudice always a matter of conscious beliefs? In the UK, ever since the trial of the men suspected of killing Stephen Lawrence, the idea of ‘institutional racism’ has been part of public discourse. The idea that racism – the systematic disadvantaging of people based on the colour of their skin or other markers – could be ‘written in’ to institutional practices and rules was hard for some to accept. There is also a substantial body of psychological research, however, to suggest that systematic biases of one kind or another – sexist, racist, homophobic, ‘fattist’ – can exist at the level of preconscious beliefs.

The topic of implicit bias was the subject of last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Café, with a discussion led by Dr Jonathan Webber (Philosophy, Cardiff University). Implicit bias, in Jon’s view, is a topic on which psychological research sheds interesting light, without necessarily allowing us to fully understand all its implications. To do this, a little philosophy is needed, which for Jon means the thought of key figures associated with French Existentialism, namely Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon.

Implicit bias tests [PDF] (e.g. examine how readily people automatically associate certain kinds of concepts or images with particular groups. Studies have indicated, for example, that respondents more quickly identify images of guns as guns if they are shown images of young black men beforehand, as well as being more likely to misidentify as guns images of objects that look like guns. Other such tests suggest that people are more likely to associate some culturally-valued words (like ‘dynamic’) with men rather than women. In either case, this is independent of groupings (black and white people, or men and women, tend to exhibit similar degrees of bias) despite the people taking the test expressing (in response to carefully constructed questionnaires designed to screen out ‘presentation effects’ – i.e. people saying what they think ‘polite society’ might want them to say) strongly anti-racist or anti-sexist opinions.

So implicit bias appears to be a phenomenon that occurs whatever people otherwise profess to believe. As Jon pointed out, these tests are ot designed to ‘diagnose’ bias in any one individual – the same person may take the test at different times and get different results. But the the research does apepar to consistently demonstrate the presence of implicit bias within sample populations s a tendency. Where does such implicit biases come from? At this point, Jon turned discussion over to the audience. A variety of explanations were considered, from biological or evolutionary influences that make us differentiate between in-group and out-group, to the existence of dominant discourses or ways of representing the world that make it less likely that dissident opinions will arise.

Cover of "The Second Sex"
Cover of The Second Sex

Jon pointed out that, when these tests are taken, people who fail to exhibit dominant implicit biases tend to be individuals who also are unaware of the content of common cultural stereotypes of different groups. This suggests, then, that implicit bias is a learnt phenomenon, an artefact of shared culture. And one of the major influences on such culture in contemporary societies is of course media representation. The idea that implicit bias is an effect of acculturation which can also be countered through it is an idea that is supported by the theories of de Beauvoir and Fanon, as Jon argued in the second half of his talk. de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex suggests that the training of children to expect different things of those defined as being of a particular gender is a central part of childhood socialisation, and that the policing of children’s behaviour (and the policing of parents by other adults) to reproduce dominant stereotyped forms of behaviour is the main mechanism through which shared cultures are passed on. In contrast to Jean-Paul Sartre‘s views on human freedom, de Beauvoir argues that this training penetrates deeply into individuals and is constitutive of their personalities. While she agrees with Sartre that we cannot assume there is something like an ‘essence’ which defines either human being as such or any individual, society tends to turn us all into essentialists – believers in the existence of substantive characteristics that are necessarily associated with specific categories of person.It also shapes our sense of what our goals and priorites should be, and thus influences how we deal with peop around us.

Cover of "Black Skin, White Masks"
Cover of Black Skin, White Masks

Frantz Fanon, by profession a psychiatrist, made similar arguments in relation to race and ethnicity in his Black Skin, White Masks. Growing up in Martinique, he observed, taught him that stereotyping and bias operate, not just through acculturation, but through confrontations between people assigned to different, socially unequal categories. While black and white children in Martinique read the same comics, books and so on – in which white heroes and subservient blacks (and other ethnic groups) were featured – this did not have any discernible effect on black children until they entered white-dominated society. Then, he argued, the experience of the ‘white gaze’, of seeing themselves through the eyes of others assigned higher social status, taught them the same, negative biases towards themselves as white people held. The effect of this, he argued, was psychologically damaging. If one’s personality is constituted through processes which inculcate biases of this kind, then it is not simply a matter of creating particular cognitive patterns. It also creates psychological distress by positioning some people within out-groups, and creating within them an identification with the out-group, defined as a negative category.

Existentialism thus adds to the psychological research on implicit bias a more nuanced understanding of its negative effects. This implies that the reproduction of implicit bias is not simply the reproduction of social inequalities, but is also the production of harm to individuals.

Jon’s new book, Rethinking Existentialism, will be out in Spring 2017 from Oxford University Press. Draft chapters can be read on the book’s website, and you can hear Jon talking about the book on its dedicated Youtube channel.

How implicitly biased is the Cardiff Philosophy Cafe audience?
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