We Are Even Racist About Typos

In case you were wondering, pretty much everything in the modern, Western world is somehow tinged with racism, up to and including typos. Yes, typos. In a new study by leadership consulting firm Nextions, it turns out that when people read a document containing grammar mistakes they are more likely to overlook or forgive the errors when they think the text was written by a white person. When participants are told the author is black, they are all over those errors like racism on, well, everything.

In the study, partners from various law firms were given a document with 22 errors, some involving spelling and grammar, and some factual, writing, or analytical errors. The partners were asked to evaluate the document, and those participants who were told the document had been written by a caucasian person gave it an average rating of 4.1 on a 5-point scale. Those who thought the author was black gave it an average rating of 3.2. And the contrast in regards to grammatical errors specifically was even more stark — in the "black author" condition the participants found an average of 5.8 grammar and spelling errors. In the "white author" condition, they only found an average of 2.9, literally half the number of errors.

The study sample size here was fairly small — they only tested 60 people, all law partners — but assuming the results aren't some kind of fluke, they have tons on implications. For one thing, law partners often have a fair bit of influence over things like hiring new lawyers, so this tendency to be more critical towards black people doesn't bode well for black job applicants at any of these firms. For another, this study can show us just how insidious racism can be, and do so with empirical data.

Because here's the most important thing: everyone in this study read the same document. The difference in behavior can't be attributed to any differences in the text itself, because the text was exactly the same for everyone. Excuses people use to explain discriminatory hiring practices — insisting that the black applicants just didn't happen to be as good, for instance — don't work here because there was no difference in the text.

The difference is in how the participants chose to approach the text, and those who thought it was written by a black person chose to be much more critical, even on supposedly objective markers like spelling and grammar. In other words, race can distort our perception of anything, no matter how seemingly objective it might be.

In other words, people have a subconscious (or maybe conscious, who knows) impulse to be more harsh in judging black people. And maybe the impulse doesn't come from an active desire to deny black people opportunities or to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate the advantage white people have in our society. But it doesn't really matter what the intention is, because the result is the same.

None of this is news, of course, to people of color who face this type of discrimination in their daily lives. And this isn't even getting into the way in which insistence on "proper English" is used to discredit or disqualify people of color, from critiques of online activists to racist bias in the SATs. But it is nice to have some data to back up what many people have known for a long, long time.