I tested my racial biases and got a kick in the gut

Indian-wedding

I’ve always had a good reason for not marrying within my own race, religion, caste, and class–as my Punjabi-Sikh parents would have liked. My usual response to everyone, Indian or not, is that I would’ve married someone from my own race if I had met the right guy, it just never happened. Really, I’m just an open-minded person, I don’t value one race, class, or religion over the other because I like everyone equally. That’s why I fell in love and married a man from Iceland. I valued him the same as every man, and as a person, for his values, attitudes and beautiful smile. His race didn’t have any bearing on my decision.

Recently, I was hanging with friends, we’d been talking about diversity and race all afternoon. I brought up my choice to marry outside of my race and gave my little speech about how I view everyone as equal. One friend interrupted my cliche little story and said “Na, na, na…I gotta challenge you on this. You have your own biases and they played into the decision not to marry someone Indian.” That stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t put off by the point he made, partly because he is an African-American who married a white woman–so he’d probably explored his own choice. But mainly because, I knew that he was right in that instant. I looked at him and said, “Hmm. Maybe I’m biased against Indian men?” He shrugged, rhetorically. I laughed, “You know I’ll be thinking about this for a while”.

The thing is when you’re invariably talking about racial identity, culture, diversity, black lives, brown lives, white lives, conversations go deep. You begin to challenge others, to notice your own bias and to see points of view in a different light. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a friend such as mine, who is smart as a whip and doesn’t let you get away with crap. Now this is progress if you think of it. Each of us opening up, digging into the murky ugly bits. Sometimes it’s mean sounding, growling and unrelenting. The conversations can leave you with a squirmy, uncomfortable itch that crawls from your toes and rolls around your belly. It’s everywhere, it’s nowhere and then it’s back out to surprise. Your nerves get frayed. You hope the conversations go away. But sitting in a sweat-inducing spot of discomfort is the first clue, you’re onto something good.

So what about my own revelation? It didn’t take me long to get to the core of my friend’s objection. He was proposing that I chose not to marry someone Indian because I have a bias against my own race. I knew enough about implicit bias to recognize it right away. But it was the first time that I realized it within myself. Denial or unawareness of implicit bias is a defining principal, as this definition from the Kirwan Institute from Ohio State University points out;

Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

Recognizing bias is a first step, like any subconscious thought that has been buried under deep layers of denial, facing such issues takes a willingness to sit with discomfort. I’ve been down this road before, coming to terms with personal baggage over the years. Honestly, I thought I had worked pretty hard to uncover what was hidden from my conscious self. But here I was again, I had to face this and I did want to understand how it was possible that I had a bias against my own race? Once it was pointed out, I couldn’t unsee it. I mean I laughed at Stephen Colbert every time he joked about race saying he didn’t see color. I laughed because it’s a ridiculous statement. And yet I was saying the same thing to everyone, without seeing the joke!

I figured I should take The Implicit Association Test (IAT) that I had seen referenced many times, mostly when discussing bias against African Americans or gender. It struck me that I never thought to take the test myself up until this point. Why was that? If I think about my explicit statements about race, mainly that I liked everyone equally, it made sense that I wouldn’t find it necessary to test my biases. Consciously, I genuinely felt I had no biases against any race, gender or sexual orientation, and definitely not against my own race! I’m a product of multiculturalism, immigration, and the American Dream. But now that my position that I viewed people with absolute racial equality had been questioned, I became more curious about my unconscious motivations.

According to the Project Implicit website, “the IAT measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about.” This is exactly what I wanted to learn, what was I unable to see about my own biases. Interestingly, the test comes with several warnings and this is the last statement before entering the site; “I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed.” I entered the testing site and was surprised that there were 14 different tests, arrrgh. I naively thought that there would be one simple test that would show my bias against Indian, or South Asian men. Hint Hint, Project Implicit!

But no, that would be too simple, so I had to improvise. The first test I took was the Arab-Muslim IAT because it seemed the most relevant because it compares Muslims to Other People and I figured an Arab-Muslim is kind of like and Indian. Plus, I grew up in a Sikh household and Muslims were not spoken of in a positive light. Long before the negative propaganda hit mainstream media, my grandmother was already priming us never to speak to Muslims. Not only that, as a young girl I was also told that the worst thing I could ever do was to marry a Muslim. This goes back to centuries of conflict between religions in India, including the fact my grandmother walked from Pakistan to Punjab, during the 1947 partition amidst murderous strife between Sikhs and Muslims. But I grew up in America where diversity and freedom of religion were pounded into my head. My father talked of the egalitarian values of Sikhism, that preaches we are all one in the eyes of God. So, I always felt uncomfortable with the negative portrayal of Muslims and I’ve often stood up for them arguing that xenophobic statements are dangerous and untrue. So it’s fair to say I was more than surprised to read the results of the Arab-Muslim IAT that “suggest a moderate automatic preference for other people compared to Arab Muslims.” Okay, well it at least it was moderate and technically it plays into my hypothesis that I may have a bias against my own race and I preferred other people.

I felt a little stunned and I understood why the test had so many disclaimers because the results are not suggesting that I’m explicitly racist toward any group, rather I had a more nuanced, subconscious bias, despite my well-meaning liberal intentions. Based on my upbringing and the more recent portrayals of Arab-Muslims since 9/11, it’s no wonder I have a moderate automatic preference for non-Arabs. Ugh. I can barely write this sentence without feeling the need to be apologetic and guilt-ridden. But this is the whole point of implicit bias, we don’t see it, but we may act upon it.

Okay, well the only thing to do next was take another test and so I chose the Asian IAT, knowing full well it would focus on East Asian identity, which is different that South Asian identity. Maybe that would get me closer to testing my bias against Indian-Americans. This test was less alarming in one sense that it didn’t compare a race against negative terms like disgust or pain. But, it was testing my ability to categorize Asian-Americans, European-Americans, American landmarks and foreign landmarks. But it did tap into an old memory, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Southern California. It was always in the atmosphere for Americans to complain about Asian immigrants as foreigners, unable to integrate into American society. I could feel old memories creep back into my conscious mind as I took the test and I could sense a bias toward one group over the other, just based on how quickly I answered. The results of this test showed that I had a “moderate association of Asian-Americans with American compared to European-American.” Basically, I feel that Asian-Americans are more aligned with the US than European Americans. That’s also probably because I’m biased due to growing up in an immigrant household and don’t associate foreignness with otherness or being less American. It also shouldn’t go without noting that I’m married to a European and I do think of him as non-American. Interesting, how the test can suss out this slight variance. But, now I was bothered that I didn’t show “no automatic preference” proving that I simply didn’t have a bias, as I’ve so often mentioned and wholeheartedly believed.

Okay, one last test. I can do it. Just the process of taking these tests bring to light the moments that you have a slower reaction to one bias than another. As your fingers are placed on the keyboard, there are are easier to answer combinations and then there are others that take a second thought, or a re-read to combine two usually disconnected combinations. I really wanted to learn if I had a bias against Indians and because there wasn’t a direct test that compared South-Asians with European-Americans, I had to hodge-podge it together. So I decided to take the Skin Tone IAT. And what do you know, I show a “strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.” In fact, 70% of respondents score either strong, moderate or slight preference for light skin and just 12% score a preference for dark skin over light. I was pretty disappointed not to be a part of 17% of respondents that show “no automatic preference,” which is what I’ve consciously thought.

All in all, after taking three IAT tests, I show a slight preference for other people over Arab-Muslims, slight preference for Asians as American and a strong preference for light skin. But does this prove I’m biased against my own race? This is complicated and startling and has made think back to what I’ve absorbed my whole life. Obviously, I have been thinking a lot about this topic since my friend pointed out that my attraction to my husband was subconsciously influenced by my implicit bias towards something I may not have explored. What I’ve learned is that I prefer light skin and I have always found white guys more attractive, so I guess it’s true.

If I think about influences, I was raised in an immigrant household and my parents did everything they could to assure I was on the right path in life. That may have meant they instilled some sense that white America was an ideal identity, either by abandoning a second language or watering down their own religious and cultural practices. It was more important to my parents that I worked to blend in with my white friends than to stand out or promote my own racial background, even though at the same they scolded me for being too American. This focus was sometimes very subtle, but other times, in the case of language, it was entirely concrete. Along the way, someone told my parents that my education would suffer if I spoke a second language, and so I was told to only to speak English. So there goes Punjabi. Also, my parents moved to Southern California and started a family in the early 70’s when there wasn’t a large community of Punjabis, as there is now. We had close family friends that were white and Indian, of every type, Hindu, Gujarati, and Sikh. Although this sounds ideal, and in many instances it was, my parents also had a strange distrust towards Indians. I always remember a time when I was about 13 and my parents decided to work with an Indian couple as their real estate agents. Over the course of many months, I had seen both of my parents struggle with this couple and at one point they  told me that they just didn’t like doing business with Indians. Strange, right? You’d think that they’d have an allegiance towards fellow countryman, but in many instances that I can clearly recall, they didn’t. Another factor I find interesting is that they began to see a second wave of immigrants come to the US, and this group had stronger ties to their culture, homeland, and language. I can image that this made my parents feel like outsiders within their own race and at the same time not fully integrated with white American families either. We always straddled both cultures, kind of in an isolating way.

I suppose this is the whole point of digging into implicit bias. It’s not as apparent as explicit racism and the causes, sources and backstory tend to be complicated, nuanced and hard to understand. For me, I can understand now that I have a bias against Indian men, even if at the same time I love many things about my culture, like yummy food and over the top Bollywood films. But the few Indian men that I dated only served to validate my assumption that they were chauvinistic, close-minded, and arrogant. I still joke that no Indian man would put up with my mouthy, rebellious and adventurous ways. If I think about it, this version of my story is counter to the myth that I was really open to marry anyone. I just happened to fall in love with a fairly feminist man who is the complete opposite of the stereotype I created for Indian men. Was this a bad thing? Probably not, I do feel I found a partner that I prefer, for many reasons. But for my parents and my family, it was a disappointment and I’m sure they felt that I turned my back on my own culture. Up until this point, I would have argued that this wasn’t true and I just followed my heart. But now I know that there was plenty more going on subconsciously that led me to this decision.

I think this is the lesson, that going forward I may have a more accurate picture and won’t continue to propagate a very narrow view that I was just such an open-minded person that race and skin color played no part in choosing a mate. There isn’t an easy way to deal with this revelation, except to pass on to others how important it is to challenge one’s own deeply rooted subconscious biases. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face the idea that you may not be living the dream as openly as you thought, but it’s utterly necessary if we are to understand how racism truly affects our society. Also, learning about biases shouldn’t validate our current position, it’s important to try to remove the power bias has in our decision making. We can’t just go around saying “I don’t see color” and expect people to believe us, especially if we can’t believe ourselves.

2 comments

  1. ratminx · September 8, 2015

    This is fantastic – and timely, since one of my current grad-school classes is all about revealing bias and discrimination and the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Moving back to the south has found me having a lot of these types of conversations, and always feeling a bit “superior” because of my west coast mind-expansion experiences… but man, I’ve got my own inherent biases, too, and it’s important to challenge those as often as possible. Especially given the line of work I’m hoping to pursue once I’m done! – Paige

    • Anita S. · September 8, 2015

      Paige, if everyone understood what is so subconscious we don’t see it, I think we could make some progress. I’m glad you’re working towards a grad degree. I know you will put it to good use. Thanks for reading!

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