I’ve been living a lie all these years it would seem. I always thought it was okay to like some things and not others. Some people, and not their friends… All my life I’ve wandered between likes and dislikes like a child in a supermarket, never wedded to a particular product, always willing to abandon a favourite for another on the shelf –catholic in my tastes, philosophical in my choice. Never absolute in my dismissal, ever willing to reconsider, I felt that it was my duty –my privilege- to sample from every counter. How else to explore the Umwelt?
But I have finally been unmasked it seems; no longer can I plead ambivalence. Capriciousness is not an option. My protean worldview is not seen as versatility. Apparently, it doesn’t even qualify as adaptive. Unbeknownst to me, it is a manifestation of implicit bias. It is part of a pandemic. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40124781
It would seem that explicit bias has been falling over the years –at least until the populist movements have re-emerged Phoenix-like in Europe and the USA- but ‘implicit bias – bias that we harbour unintentionally – is much stickier, much more difficult to eradicate. At least that’s the claim.’ Testing for this has become popular with many firms. ‘Jules Holroyd, an expert in implicit bias at Sheffield University, traces some of the test’s success to its providing an explanation “for why exclusion and discrimination of various forms persist. And that explanation,” she adds, “is really appealing since it doesn’t need to attribute ill-will or animosity to the people who are implicated in such exclusion.”’
I have to say, though, that in my case it is certainly subtle –a shadow that follows silently in my footsteps. And, like my conscience, I suppose, I only really know it’s there if I look. The BBC article describes a test –the Implicit Association Test (IAT)- that purports to unearth it. Exhume it, if you will. It’s one of those psychologically clever tests that almost tachistoscopically presents images and words to discover what it is you actually associate with what… They offer the ability to do the test online, but I wasn’t able to figure out the words and pictures fast enough, so I gave up.
And, thank goodness for my peace of mind, the IAT –ubiquitous as it appears to be- has its problems. Replicability seems key: ‘One reason for this is that your score seems to be sensitive to circumstances in which you take it. It’s possible that your result will depend on whether you take the test before – or after – a hearty lunch.’ But, ‘More fundamentally, there appears to a very tenuous relationship between the IAT and behaviour.’
There are many manifestations of implicit bias, I’m sure. And many ways to detect it as well. The owners of CVs with Caucasian-sounding names seem to get more jobs. So do male versus female names. Or how about cultural stereotypes? ‘The claim that most of us suffer from various forms of implicit bias is all of a piece with the explosion of research into the irrationality of our reasoning, decisions and beliefs. We are not the cogent, systematic and logical creatures we might like to assume.’
Mea Culpa. I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers. I don’t think it’s usually because I don’t trust them –it’s sometimes because I’ve been shopping and the seats are bag-laden, or I don’t see them in time to stop safely. More often, though, it’s because I just don’t feel like it.
I was driving across Canada a few years ago, and one stormy evening on my way to a little prairie town where I hoped to spend the night I saw a bedraggled figure on the side of a lonely stretch of the highway. I couldn’t see very clearly in the driving rain, but it did have its thumb out so I stopped. The road was empty and I hadn’t even seen a car going in either direction for a long time. For that matter I hadn’t seen any buildings or other roads either; I wondered where the poor soul had come from.
The figure, still in rain-drenched shadows, was wearing a dark sodden hoodie and torn jeans when it came up to my window and smiled. I unlocked the door and smiled back as the stranger climbed into the car.
“Gee, thanks mister,” an unmistakably older female voice said from somewhere inside the hood. “Been standing there for almost an hour…” She wiped the moisture off her face with her even wetter sleeve and stared out the front windshield, smiling at nothing in particular. “Couple of cars passed me a while back, but they didn’t even slow down…” she continued in a matter-of-fact voice that seemed to betray no resentment.
“The place I picked you up seems a long way from anywhere,” I said, curious as to why she’d been standing there.
She shrugged. “My man and I live in a cabin further in from the road,” she responded, still staring out of the window. “There’s a little path…” she added, sensing my unfamiliarity with the region. She turned her head and watched me struggling with the road for a moment. “Where you from?”
I glanced at her quickly –it was all the time I could spare- and smiled again. “West coast… Vancouver, I suppose.”
“Suppose?” She seemed amused at the uncertainty I had just exposed.
I shrugged and peered out between the frantic wipers. “We moved a lot when I was younger.”
She stared silently at the rain lashing the windshield for a while and then turned to me again. “I’ve lived here all my life. Many of my people left, but I stayed…” And with that, she resumed her contemplation of the rain.
“Your people…?” I didn’t mean to pry, but I was curious about someone standing on the side of the road at night in the rain, far from anywhere.
“I’m an Indian,” she said with a moist toss of her head to free her hair from the hoodie clinging so damply to her shoulders. “Sorry,” she added when she noticed she’d sprinkled water over the dashboard.
“Don’t be,” I responded with a chuckle and showed her the dust that had already accumulated from my trip.
We sat in silence for a few minutes again. “Why did you pick me up?” she suddenly said in a soft voice.
“Mmmh?” I wondered if I’d heard her properly.
“Nobody but my people usually pick me up…” She stared at me for a second or two, her face genuinely puzzled. “Don’t you think you were taking a risk?”
It was my turn to be puzzled. “You mean by picking up a person in a storm?”
She examined my face and frowned. “Nobody likes us around here. Nobody trusts us…” She thought about that for a few seconds. “Did you know what I was before you stopped?”
I have to admit I chuckled at her question. “A bedraggled person hitchhiking by themselves in the dark -far from anywhere? In the pounding rain…? Is there more I should know?”
Her face lightened and in the headlights of a lone car speeding the other way, I thought I could see a sparkle in her eyes as she nodded her head. “Yes,” she said. “I think there is…”
Surprised, I tore my eyes away from the road briefly and glanced at her -glanced at the hand she was moving slowly towards me.
“My name,” she said and giggled like a little girl.