Implicit racism in academia

teacher-309533_640Subtle racism is prevalent in US and UK universities, according to a new paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and released last week, reports The Times Higher Education.

Black professors surveyed for the paper said they were treated differently than white colleagues in the form of receiving less eye contact or requests for their opinion, that they felt excluded in meetings and experienced undermining of their work. “I have to downplay my achievements sometimes to be accepted” said one academic, explaining that colleagues that didn’t expect a black woman to be clever and articulate. Senior managers often dismiss racist incidents as conflicts of personalities or believe them to be exaggerated, found the paper.

And all this in institutions where almost all staff would say they are not just “not racist” but where many would say they were actively committed to fighting prejudice.

This seems like a clear case of the operation of implicit biases – where there is a contradiction between people’s egalitarian beliefs and their racist actions. Implicit biases are an industry in psychology, where tools such as the implicit association test (IAT) are used to measure them. The IAT is a fairly typical cognitive psychology-type study: individuals sit in front of a computer and the speed of their reactions to stimuli are measured (the stimuli are things like faces of people with different ethnicities, which is how we get out a measure of implicit prejudice).

The LFHE paper is a nice opportunity to connect this lab measure with the reality of implicit bias ‘in the wild’. In particular, along with some colleagues, I have been interested in exactly what an implicit bias, is, psychologically.

Commonly, implicit biases are described as if they are unconscious or somehow outside of the awareness of those holding them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been shown to be the case (in fact the opposite may be true – there’s some evidence that people can predict their IAT scores fairly accurately). Worse, the very idea of being unaware of a bias is badly specified. Does ‘unaware’ mean you aren’t aware of your racist feelings? Of your racist behaviour? Of that the feelings, in this case, have produced the behaviour?

The racist behaviours reported in the paper – avoiding eye-contact, assuming that discrimination is due to personalities and not race, etc – could all work at any or all of these levels of awareness. Although the behaviours are subtle, and contradict people’s expressed, anti-racist, opinions, the white academics could still be completely aware. They could know that black academics make them feel awkward or argumentative, and know that this is due to their race. Or they could be completely unaware. They could know that they don’t trust the opinions of certain academics, for example, but not realise that race is a factor in why they feel this way.

Just because the behaviour is subtle, or the psychological phenomenon is called ‘implicit’, doesn’t mean we can be certain about what people really know about it. The real value in the notion of implicit bias is that it reminds us that prejudice can exist in how we behave, not just in what we say and believe.

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias . This post is cross-posted on the project blog. Run your own IAT with our open-source code: Open-IAT!

11 thoughts on “Implicit racism in academia”

  1. Racism is a form of stupidity. The general belief in your superiority over others is stupid. It is born of ignorance and poor education. Stupidity has no boundaries of gender, race, religion. Stupidity knows no borders.

    1. Is this based on empirical evidence? Racism is also found in well-educated and informed people, not exclusively in ignorant and uneducated people. Moreover, scientific investigation of racism(s) is probsbly not much supported by crude stereotypes and simplistic explanations.

      1. Success in academia requires little more than a tolerance for tedium. Universities breed conformists—to go against the grain is to be immediately cast out. Those who populate these institutions may have high IQs, but this most certainly does not mean they are informed or socially intelligent. It is, in essence, a highly cloistered environment populated by deluded bourgeois strivers who, being the product of a racist society, cannot help but be racist regardless of their professed political stance. If you want to be educated and still retain your humanity, skip the university and head down to the public library.

    2. You are correct, of course. The trouble is that we do not provide children that sort of moral education in our schools, and lord knows the vast majority of parents aren’t providing it; many, in fact, are providing just the opposite. Americans on the whole, even the best educated, are pretty stupid, as they’ve never been taught what’s most important in this life: how to not be a rotten human being. This is why they are largely regarded as a joke in more enlightened parts of the world.

    1. Nonsense. Human beings are not machines. This scientistic claptrap is always trotted out by those who’ve had their own capacity for common sense neutered by the collective delusions of the age. Much as we now look back on phrenology with incredulity, this blather about “information processing” and penchant for human-as-computer metaphors will likewise be dismissed with a snicker by future generations. Rather than dismiss the concerns of others who have to contend with poor treatment on a daily basis, why not try to imagine that others may be experiencing something radically different from what you are.

  2. Interesting article, thank you for sharing. I live in Cali, Colombia, a city located in the southwest region of Colombia with a large percentage of their population with a genetic background which could be traced to African origins (slaves brought during the Spanish colonialism since the 1st decade of the XVI century). The phenomenon of racism in Colombia is complex and very difficult to understand (I`m not an expert in this field either).

    This article also reminds me of the phenomenon of exclusion of certain ethnic backgrounds from controlled clinical trials evaluating drugs for the treatment of human disease. There are many examples with this situation (some of the most well-know in studies evaluating drugs to treat heart failure).

    Here is one example with dabigatran (Pradaxa) which I recently found on

    Kind regards,

    Jorge R.

  3. I think some of this has to do with affirmative action policies as well.

    I know quite a few people that will think a black colleague got to his position because of it.

    Unless they came from a school in California or Michigan, which doesn’t have AA policies.

  4. This is especially dismal considering that, at least in the US universities are considered bastions of enlightenment and progressive thought. People moving from blue states to red states will say “that’s okay, it’s a college town” indicating that even being near a university protects us from ignorant behavior. I was under the impression that racism could be reduced when cooperating or seeing people in admirable jobs (our President, for example) this seems to indicate that’s all wrong. Maybe since people assume these places are immune to it that the behavior is not monitored or self-monitored?

    1. The popular conception of universities is that they are liberal havens, but this is a mistaken notion. Certain departments within academia tend to be populated by liberal-minded professors, but the university is still, being a bourgeois institution, on the whole very conservative. True enlightenment is not to be found in these sorts of settings. Enlightenment entails a rejection of norms, which will quickly make one a pariah in any American university. Nearly every campus across the country is still largely segregated along racial lines, and there is a great deal of animosity between the various groups which makes being a student or professor “of color” (silly term for those without sufficient numbers to be in the majority, really) a largely unpleasant experience. It’s absurd to expect that those who’ve spent their formative years absorbing implicit messages about race (as all Americans do, regardless of background) are going to somehow magically forget those messages because they are now in college.

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