By Joel Mortenson, Becketwood Member
One way to think of your brain is as a categorization machine. It makes associations and comparisons and says this fits here and that fits there. As a species survival tool it was good to know that a wagging tail was friendly and bared teeth was not. We are continually sorting the elements of our perception into categories that help us navigate the world. Sometimes those categorizations lead us astray. That is the premise of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.
The author, Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD professor of social psychology at Stanford, spent her first 12 years in an all Black neighborhood of Cleveland. When her parents moved to a white suburb to improve the quality of their daughter’s education, it was terribly frightening for Jennifer. She was afraid she wouldn’t fit in, and when it turned out that she was being welcomed into these new groups, understanding was still difficult, because how do you fit in if you can’t tell one girl from another? All those White girls looked the same to her and she was too embarrassed to admit it.
That is just one of the personal stories that make her reportage so readable. It isn’t just, “This study illustrated that if you show subliminal messages using words about crime, a viewer looking at a pair of faces: one white, one black will look more frequently at the black face,” followed by yet another study that illustrated yet another point about institutionalized bias.
Her classmates at Harvard chose her to lead the procession at her doctoral graduation, an incredible honor. The night before the ceremony she drove with a friend into a Black neighborhood, was pulled over by the police, thrown down against the hood of the car, cuffed and hauled off to jail. She had but one phone number, so she called her dean who said something to the officer who promptly let them go. All for a missing tail light. All because she was Black.
She has spent much of her professional life training law enforcement personnel in addition to her continuing research and teaching at Stanford. She talks about a class she taught in prison, where she learned more than she taught. She tells us that stereotypes are shaped by media, history, culture and family beliefs, and then shows the validity of her assertions with peer-reviewed, scientific studies done by others as well as herself. She says that we are trying “to free ourselves from the tight grip of history” and admits that it is a difficult and uphill battle, one that requires constant vigilance.
We all know that racial bias causes disparities in education, employment, housing, and criminal justice. What Eberhardt shows over and over again is how those disparities further reinforce the bias. We live with ingrained stereotypes and they infect our visual perception, attention, behavior, and memory. We live with unequal discipline in schools. We teach Blacks, women, and other minorities to “white wash” their resumes for success in the job market, and she cites study after study that proved bias in hiring. In the end she tells us that there is hope. That hope is founded in the fact that people can change. I thought of the Rogers and Hammerstein song, “You have to be Carefully Taught,” thinking she is right. We can overcome these biases, we just have to work at it, and she has shown us a way.