My last post was focussed on how white parents talk about race. The reason, of course, is that African-Americans and other minorities in the U.S. aren’t in the same boat when it comes to these questions. Claiming that they are — that we should talk about racism as if it’s the same problem for all people — is one of the false equivalencies of “color blindness.”
Non-whites can’t avoid the subject of skin color, because “white” is the default setting in American culture. Whites don’t perceive that culture easily, any more than a fish could see the water in which it swims.
So images that seem neutral to whites are reminders to non-whites of their divergence from what was expected. This isn’t the result of anyone’s conscious decision to be hostile. It happens because people aren’t conscious that they have a default setting.
For example, one study of 368 Time and Newsweek magazine covers published between 1990 and 2006 found that when a single person was chosen to represent all 300 million Americans, that photograph was much more likely to be a white person’s than you’d expect from the nation’s ethnic breakdown.
However, when a small group was used to represent the United States, then the percentage of minority faces was much closer to the actual proportion of nonwhites in the US population. (Sorry, no link right now, I am still searching for the paper. If you know it, dear reader, please leave a comment.)
The study of “implicit” bias is booming in social psychology. You can test your own unconscious biases here. Be warned: This isn’t your conscious self expressing its principles, so you might be unpleasantly surprised. If so, or if you’d just like to understand the raging debate about the scientific validity of this test, check out this recently published broadside (pdf) from the skeptics.