The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I never met any African Americans. As far as I could tell, none ever lived there. Looking back at that time, the only African American in Sri Lanka that I can recall was the US Ambassador to that country, whose picture occasionally appeared in the paper giving a speech at some formal function or attending some cocktail party. Given that my only contact with African Americans (if you can call it contact since, not being a member of high society, I never actually met him) was based on a single very important and distinguished-looking black man, you might expect that growing up I would have been spared the acquisition of negative stereotypes of black people that we saw surfacing during the post-Katrina coverage.

But unfortunately that was not the case. When I arrived in the US to start graduate school and came into contact with black people, I discovered that I probably had every stereotype and prejudice that the average person who grew up in the US had.

I have been thinking a lot about race all my life, even more so since the events triggered by Katrina. Race seems to be the primary prism through which we view and interpret events, with class close behind, although the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. W. E. B. Du Bois, the author of the classic book Souls of Black Folk said in 1903: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” I think that it is even more true than he thought. I also think that this issue, broadened to race in general, will dominate discussions well into the twenty-first century.

I don’t think any of us are exempt from the fact that race and class always distorts the way we view events. I too am guilty of instinctively seeing things in a way that interprets the actions of poor (and people of color) in a more negative way than if the same actions were done by middle class (and white) people, even though I am also a person of color. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink suggests that even people of color are not immune from the powerful pressures of the environment that cause us to have negative stereotypes even about ourselves.

I wrote earlier about a research study by Harvard University that measures the level of negative associations we make about race. If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on “Demonstration”, then on “Go to Demonstration Tests”, then on “I wish to proceed”. This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IATs) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell’s book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are the unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, and that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test “always leaves me feeling a bit creepy.” He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

So in a way, it should not be surprising that even though I had never met any black people growing up, I should fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that the average American has. US culture has permeated the world, for both good and bad, and my impressions of America and Americans was formed by my reading of the news, magazines, films, and books. If we go back to the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up, black people were generally either absent or portrayed in negative ways in those media. Although the civil rights struggle in the US and Martin Luther King were inspiring because of the dignity with which they were largely carried out, that was the exception. The image that dominated was that of black people as poor, uneducated, and prone to violence and crime. It should not be surprising that I absorbed all those images in my formative years and they should have such a powerful influence on my thinking even now.

To be continued tomorrow…