Do You Know Your Racial Preferences?

Submit your preconceptions to Harvard’s Implicit Association Test.

No one wants to see an unarmed teenager shot to death while walking home from a convenience store. Beyond that, perceptions vary. (Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters)

Apr 10, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The baffling, tragic and unpunished shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, sparked outrage and sorrow through the nation—and illustrated, once again, the depth of America’s racial divide. Perceptions of 17-year-old Martin’s death at the hands of volunteer neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman appear to be sharply divided by race. According to a Newsweek/Daily Beast poll, 35 percent of whites believe Trayvon’s killing was racially motivated. In polarized contrast, 80 percent of African Americans believe the shooting was racially motivated.

One thing majorities of blacks and whites do agree on, if the Newsweek/Daily Beast poll numbers reflect reality, is that the country is divided by race. But twice as many blacks as whites consider the country very divided by race, and only 19 percent of whites experience racism as a major problem, as opposed to 60 percent of blacks.

One of the problems with presumptions is that, to a large extent, we are not conscious when we employ them.

Racism is tricky. Well-meaning people disagree about what constitutes racism (such as using the word ghetto to denote something of inferior, slapdash quality). The R-bomb itself has become such a loaded term that any discussion of the racial divide is conducted under the fear of it being dropped.

We all have our presumptions when it comes to racial attitudes: presumptions about our own attitudes and presumptions about the attitudes of others. One of the problems with presumptions is that, to a large extent, we are not conscious when we employ them.

Maybe a first step to a clearer, more sympathetic and receptive view of other races is to challenge our preconceived notions about our individual attitudes toward people whose skin is a different shade of human than our own.

That’s where the truth-or-dare exercise of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test comes in. Crafted out of research done at the University of Washington, University of Virginia, Harvard University and Yale University, the Implicit Association Test is a 15-minute online interactive quick-response game that purports to reveal the player’s implicit preference for white people or black people.

An “important” disclaimer on the site warns: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.”

If you do dare to proceed, images of black individuals and white individuals are randomly alternated with screens showing positive words (friend, success, love) or negative words (enemy, failure, hate).

The player is instructed to hit the K key whenever a person of a particular race, say black, or a “good” word appears on screen; hit the D key when a white person or a “bad” word appears on screen. This activity can be more difficult and stressful than it sounds—especially for anyone who doesn’t want to test out as having “strong implicit preferences” for one race over another.

After a dozen or so images and words click through, play pauses. The player is instructed to reverse races. Now images of white people are to be associated with the “good” words, and images of blacks associated with the “bad.” This race-reversal assignment is repeated half a dozen times.

At the end of the harrowing ordeal, if you agree to receive the test findings, you will be assigned an interpretation of your implicit association score. Your automatic associations may be described as indicating “slight,” “moderate,” “strong” or “little to no” preference for blacks or whites.

The site has asked you to admit “the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT performance with which I may not agree,” and assures you not to worry if that is the case:

How implicit associations affect our judgments and behaviors is not well understood and may be influenced by a number of variables. As such, the score should serve as an opportunity for self-reflection, not as a definitive assessment of your implicit thoughts or feelings. This and future research will clarify the way in which implicit thinking and feelings affects our perception, judgment, and action.

Take the test, and challenge your friends. However, think twice before you insist that all results be shared publicly. The unknown prejudices preferences you protect may be your own.

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