I Tested Myself For Implicit Racial Bias

Sometimes, it's worthwhile to mine your brain a little bit and see what shakes out. Self-reflection can be valuable, provided you're willing to be honest with yourself. So, if you've ever wondered how it feels to test your implicit racial bias, why not give Harvard's Implicit Associations Test (IAT) a try? If you've got the time and the will, it can be a pretty illuminating experience. I recently decided to take the IAT, following a generalized clean-up-my-life kind of impulse. Get in shape, pay off some old debts, check yourself for implicit racial bias — not bad places to start, right?

I went into the experience already quite aware of implicit bias — unspoken prejudices, assumptions and perceptions — can affect all of us, skewing and distorting our views of our fellow human beings. In fact, I steeled myself ahead of time for a negative outcome, assuming that the test's results would reveal such tendencies in myself, as it even had in one of its own creators, Dr. Mazarhin Banaji.

But, even while preemptively lowering my expectations, I wasn't expecting just how uncomfortable it feels to honestly assess your own, often unreflected-upon prejudices or impulses about race. My life experience obviously carries some distinct baggage: I'm a white man, raise in the affluent, overwhelmingly white liberal enclave of Marin County, California. My childhood saw me interact with virtually no black people at all — whether teachers, authority figures, or classmates, So, honestly, I wasn't feeling optimistic.

Getting Ready

There are four categories for the race IAT: "Good," "Bad," "European-American," and "African-American." The basic format of the test is pretty simple. It flashes between different images, then different words, then different images and words mixed together, in an attempt to chart your unconscious biases.

While taking the test, you have to keep your fingers on the "e" and "i" keys on your keyboard, standing for left and right, basically. You wait for a word or image to appear, then strike whichever key corresponds to the correct category.

So, the "e" key might signify "African-American/Bad" while the "i" key signifies"European-American/Good." Meaning any picture of a white face or positive words (like "joy" or "glorious") would be answered by hitting "i," while black faces or negative words (like "nasty" or "evil") would require you to hit "e."

Taking The Test

The extent of the introductory instructions had me feeling a little tense — I've never thought of myself as being great at these sorts of rapid-response trials. But it ended up being pretty smooth and easy, even though in the moment it felt a little harried.

You're under explicit instructions to move quickly and are expected to make a few mistakes, because the whole goal of the test is to measure how quickly and accurately you identify positive and negative words grouped with black faces versus white ones — the more time you have to think, the less indicative it is of your instinctual judgments.

The test isn't very long, probably around five or six minutes, after which you're asked to honestly answer some survey questions. You can decline to answer, but they're a measure of your recognition of your own racial attitudes. For example, it asks how often you feel certain ways in the company of black people ("confident," "comfortable," "anxious," or "threatened," for example), and it gathers information about where you grew up and the racial diversity (or lack thereof) of your surroundings.

This is when your willingness to be unabashedly open comes into play, and I found it to be the most valuable part of the experience. While you might instinctively assume you know the answer to "how often do you feel anxious around black people" without really checking in with yourself, a deeper moment of reflection might give you pause.

I was particularly unsure of my own feelings when I was asked how often I felt "comfortable" around black people. Am I comfortable? Am I not? I don't feel comfortable around most people, frankly. And, maybe the most upsetting realization — that I hadn't experienced enough diversity in my life to truly know one way or the other. Suffice to say, the time you spend examining yourself and your own personal history is well worth the experience.

... And, Of Course, The Results

Given my aforementioned background, I pretty much assumed I'd test for "moderate to strong" automatic preference for whites, because that's so often how this test goes. More than 70 percent of participants display what the IAT describes as a "moderate to strong" bias, and that's across all races.

Even further, the only respondents are people who decide on their own to take the test, and that's a level of interest in implicit racism that suggests a sympathetic ear. a hugely common experience, even for ostensibly liberal, anti-racist people who take the test. So it came as a great surprise to learn that my data showed "little to no preference between African-American and European-American." I took it three times, and got this result in each instance.

The test has staunch advocates and detractors alike — it's been cited in books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and Lisa Bloom's Suspicion Nation, used compellingly to analyze the influence of reflexive racism in society. Its predictive value was also bolstered in 2009 by a study led by Dr. Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, and one of the IAT's co-creators.

It also has its fair share of critics. Some challenges have been raised with the test's methodology, specifically whether or not it truly indicates what it claims to. Writing for Psychology Today back in 2011, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman argued that part of the IAT's outcomes might have to do with "in-group" versus "out-group" preference, not racism— basically, that the test could be misidentifying a sort of colorless preference toward one's own grouping with racist attitudes.

There's also the risk that people who simply aren't as cognitively sharp at rapid-reaction to words and images could struggle with the very nature of the test in a way that doesn't reflect implicit preference. When the IAT first rose to widespread public attention years ago, some psychologists voiced caution about it, including Dr. Greg Mitchell from the University of Virginia, who called it "not yet ready for prime time."

The criticism is probably to be expected, however, considering what a fraught societal ill the IAT means to examine. In any event, assuming you're willing to temper any positive outcomes with that same skepticism you might want to apply if the results were negative, I think taking the test is a very valuable experience. Even if it does nothing but make you reflect on your own attitudes and prejudices, and the role that passive, non-vocal forms of racial bias can play in society, the Harvard IAT does a huge service.

Images: Harvard IAT (6)