Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm Not a Racist But My Brain Is

A sidebar to the matter of biological reductionism: An old acquaintance of mine posted a link to this article today, and commented:
When I've argued that the tendencies which create biases (but not specific biases) are hardwired in us because our brains try to be efficient and use heuristics when only incomplete information is available (and complete information is never available), so elimination of this or that -ism probably isn't a likely goal to strive toward, but diminution of it's impacts is, I've encountered understandable resistance. This item does a much better job than I've done of explaining this perspective and more.
My acquaintance is now a diversity manager at a state university somewhere, so he often posts material like this, a tendency which is no doubt part of his own brain trying to be efficient.  I realize it's just his DNA talking, but my DNA felt that a few remarks were in order.

First, organisms, including human beings, are not "hardwired."  Metaphors like this aren't necessarily harmful -- metaphors are unavoidable when talking about the world -- but using a machine-based metaphor to describe organisms usually leads to confusion.  The usual defense, used by Richard Dawkins among others, is to claim that "machine" refers not to the simple metal and plastic machines Man has so far created, but to idealized machines that don't yet exist.  If people would bear these nonexistent but superior machines in mind when they encounter the "machine" metaphor, there would be no confusion.  Alas, in the real world, people seem to prefer to fall back on the machines they know when they parse this metaphor.  A hardwired machine cannot strive toward any goal, cannot transcend its programming, cannot exert any agency at all.  Human beings can, because we aren't machines in the sense that a Cuisinart or a Mercedes is.  (True, we often suspect that machines have minds of their own when they fail at inconvenient times.  The tendency to anthroporphize the inanimate is also a common, possibly innate human trait.)

Second, to move to the article, it doesn't actually use the word "hardwired," which is good.  And the research it discusses may be suggestive.  Suppose for the moment that it actually points to innate human tendencies, which seems likely to me too.  It would be just as true, in that case, to title the article "If You're Black [or Asian, or Jewish, or Native American], Science Says You're Probably a Racist," because those tendencies are more or less universal to human beings.  Not quite universal, though: according to the article, "In a 2007 study of over 2.5 million IAT [Implicit Association Test] responses, University of Virginia psychology professor Brian Nosek and colleagues reported that 68% of participants demonstrated negative implicit attitudes toward black people, dark skin, and black children. A 2010 follow-up study headed by Nosek revealed that despite the US election of its first black president, little had changed."  Why the election of the first black US president would have changed supposedly innate brain responses is not clear, but it's worth stressing that 32 percent of the participants did not demonstrate these negative responses, so not everybody's brain is racist, at least not to the same degree.  The article doesn't attempt to explain this, nor how the researchers know that the implicit associations are innate -- after all, the respondents had presumably been alive long enough to soak up social cues on skin color in a historically racist society.  I suppose they simply assumed that whatever the majority does is inborn.

There are good PR reasons why the article has the title it does, and I doubt my acquaintance would have recommended it if it had ascribed racism to people of color.  There's at least anecdotal evidence that prejudice against darker skin is widespread in populations of color, whether they are minorities (as in the US) or majorities (as in Asia, for example).  As a diversity manager, my acquaintance also works within the paradigm that defines racism not as a matter of individual bias or prejudice but a structural feature of institutions and societies.  From what I've seen, there's a strong tension in university residential counseling departments between biological determinism and cultural determinism.  Biological determinism is applied to sexual orientation, for example, while cultural determinism governs discussions of culture, prejudice and stratification.  Gender is a topic where the two tendencies would clash, but so far they're just juxtaposed and harmonized; I don't think that will last.

Third, the article shows a rather crude understanding of "race."  Race is not just a matter of skin color, or even of any visible traits at all.  Perhaps the writer simply wanted to simplify a complex issue, but it still comes out as though race were a real-world, pre-cultural quality of human beings, instead of a messy social construct full of contradictions.  So, for example, "Studies have found that the human brain shows heightened responses in sensory and emotional areas when we observe others in pain (a likely marker of empathy), but not so much when the person in pain is a different race. We literally do not feel the pain of others."  This even though the writer goes on to cite a case which proves that race is ascribed: "Last year, sociology researchers Aliya Saperstein, Andrew Penner, and Jessica Kizer published a longitudinal analysis showing that that once someone is arrested, even once, that person is more likely to be classified as black rather than white or Asian."

"Blackness," then, is not necessarily an innate trait of a person to which the observer reacts, but a classification applied by the observer for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color.  And while it does appear that "race" and "racism" as means of defining people as fully human or not are relatively recent developments, historically people have classified others as Other for all sorts of reasons, from the language they speak to the gods they worship to the land they live on.  And that leaves out body configuration, or "sex," now called "gender."  This may mean that Othering is an innate trait, but by focusing on race the article oversimplifies the issues involved, by implying that "race" is the paradigm case of difference that inspires bias.

Finally, the article uses another problematic metaphor, that of a radical dualism in the human self:  "Our brains love to form and use stereotypes," even though "we want not to be racist."  Our brains do the wanting, after all, and it's arguable that "we" do want to be racist, thanks to the stereotyping mechanisms that Science has found according to the article, and depending on what you think "we" refers to.  Wanting not to be racist is also the product of tendencies in the brain, such as wanting not to be shamed in our communities.  Apparently the "bad," disapproved parts of ourselves are Othered by blaming them on our brains and our genes, while the "good," approved parts float free, struggling against the baser impulses of our biology.  It was my diversity-manager acquaintance whom I told, when he was a student at IU, that I'd love not to believe in Free Will, but unfortunately my genes programmed my brain to believe in it, and so I can't help myself.  It can be useful for some purposes, and certainly it's easy, to divide oneself into "I" and "me," Brother Spirit and Brother Ass.  But it's possible, and necessary, to put the pieces back together and see them as a whole, however complex and conflicted; otherwise we just chase our own tails endlessly.