Mind Hacks

I’m only racist when I’m drunk

In the light of several celebrities who have excused racist comments by saying they were drunk, tired or under stress, Time magazine has an excellent article examining how we can indeed become more prejudiced when run-down. Contrary to what some might think, this is not a get-out card for racism but may be key to understanding how best to challenge prejudice.

The piece riffs on findings from the Implicit Association Test or IAT that measures how quickly we pair concepts with positive or negative attitudes. It has found, for example, that negative biases towards black people are present in a large proportion of the population, including black people themselves.

The idea is not that all of these people are racist, but that we have absorbed negative cultural associations that tend to push our thinking in the direction of prejudice and we need to make a conscious effort to act even-handedly to counter-balance this tendency.

This effort, however, is hard mental work, and several studies have shown that this control can be weakened simply by altering the resources available to the brain.

It’s probably worth saying that one example in the article has been a bit mangled in the retelling. The study on ‘how elderly people given full sugar lemonade expressed fewer racist sentiments than those given diet lemonade’ wasn’t actually on elderly people or racist remarks.

But it did show that students given real lemonade were less likely to make homophobic remarks when asked to write as essay about a gay man than those given a sugar-free soft-drink.

However, it has been found that we are more likely to show racial bias as we age – likely because the circuits most involved in self-control heavily rely on the frontal lobes – which tend to become less efficient as we head into our twilight years.

In other words, we are all more likely to be prejudiced when we’re not firing on all cylinders and this is where it gets interesting.

The article raises the issue of which is the authentic you – the socially acceptable on-the-ball you, or the run-down prejudice-prone you?

Clearly, we would prefer the former, but its notable that much of the anti-racism rhetoric has pointed out, quite rightly, that we can be biased despite our best efforts, suggesting the latter.

It is also the case that people who have become notorious for outbursts of prejudice are often condemned as ‘racists’ rather than criticised for having made a mistake.

This is important, but it turns out that thinking of someone as characteristically prejudiced, rather than someone subject to the wax and wane of bias, is likely to mean racist acts go unchallenged.

A person’s attitude toward bias may help reduce it as well. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, and her colleagues recently published a study illustrating why some people confront racism and others do not. Dweck found that those who believed racism was a permanent characteristic (“that person is a racist”) were four times less likely to confront research assistants who made racist statements than those who saw racism as changeable…

Further, Dweck’s study found that it’s relatively easy to get people to change their views about the changeability of racism, at least in the short term. After researchers asked participants to read a report emphasizing studies showing that people can change, they were 20% to 25% more likely to say they would confront prejudice.

Condemning people rather than actions may make it more likely that racism goes unchallenged. Scientific backing for the words of Jay Smooth.

Link to Time on prejudice and the ‘authentic self’.
Link to Jay Smooth on challenging racism.