I Assume I am Racist

This title is extremely uncomfortable. I don’t want to hang it out there, but I’m going to hoping it does some good for you to learn about me. It requires some explanation.

First, a little about me. I’m a psychologist, a social scientist if you will. I have a PhD. I can read research, and I do. Typically, when I learn more through research, it leads to more questions and the general sense that I constantly feel like I actually know less than I used to. That said, there are ideas that I’m very certain about. Here’s one: Others know me better than I know myself.

That’s also extremely uncomfortable, but I think it’s true. And put it this way: If it’s not true, nobody cares. They see me as they see me. And that becomes me.

Let me give you an example. Some buddies and I were discussing recent American events lately. Some stats were shared by one of my friends. Now, I think I’m good at stats, both reading and interpreting. This thought is supported by evidence (or so I think). I scored extremely high on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in the Quantitative and Analytical sections. This means I am extremely high in quantitative and analytical reasoning in comparison to graduate school applicants, pretty smart folks. Imagine how smart I am compared to the general population. At least that’s how I like to think because it paints a good picture of me. So in an effort to be helpful to my buddies and our conversation, I shared my take on the statistics. It didn’t go well. One friend simply pointed out this: You’re being a know-it-all jerk, and nobody cares how smart you think you are. Let people express their opinion.

Those of you who know me are nodding profusely. While I may be good at reasoning and have stats to prove it, I can come off as a know-it-all jerk to people, and this becomes me. My behavior is more “jerk” than it is “helpful.” Thus, at times, many times, others know me better than I know myself.

So you might be thinking at this point, JWood, I get why you think you are good at reasoning and why others think you’re a jerk at times, but why do you think you’re racist?

There are two main additional reasons.

First, there is a phenomenon in psychology called the Lake Wobegon Effect. It turns out that when you ask people whether they are below average, average, or above average at various things, most people rate themselves above average on almost everything. Think about that. Can most people actually be above average at most things?

The short answer is no. The longer answer it that it depends who you ask. Given that this research is robust, tends to be conducted on college students, and it includes a wide variety of attributes, it is unlikely the above average ratings are accurate. I would also say that people rating themselves as above average fits with my 46 years of people watching in this world, some of it as a professional scientist. Thus, I think the Wobegon Effect is legitimate, and I worry that it applies to me. I may be worse at things than I actually think I am.

Second, we all have biases, and these are largely unknown to us. They are, by definition, prejudices. Before you suggest that you don’t have prejudices, let me call bullshit on that. If you can read this article, your brain works more or less normally, and it is a categorizing machine. You have prejudices. You can’t help it. Your brain can’t help it. That’s the way it works. It seeks to group and categorize and make assumptions. It’s actually the only way to begin getting around in the world safely, and once you begin, you can’t stop. You can’t help it. You aren’t aware of it. And you have to work extremely hard to fight the tendency, and fighting the tendency may occur only after you’ve formed the prejudice or bias.

So, with that, as a cognitive scientist, I can tell you three things about myself: 1) I don’t know myself as well as I think I do.  2) I probably think I am better at some things than I am. 3) I have biases/prejudices (and following #1 and #2, I’m probably unaware of them or underestimate how bad I am with them).

Given those uncomfortable understandings about myself, why do I assume one of those biases is racism? It’s simple. It’s important to me not to be racist. So I assume one of my biases is a tendency toward racism, and then I am on guard to fight against it. It causes me no harm to think this way (my confidence that I am doing the right thing staves off self-abuse), and it may indeed help others for me to be open to their experiences and opinions of how I interact with them.

For the record, I can’t recall ever being accused of racism. I’ve also taken some tests and actually test very well, meaning I’m neutral in favorability toward skin tone. But as I noted before with my GRE results, I should never presume statistics affect others’ perceptions of me. So I assume I am racist, and I  work to fight against it.

I can tell you that I have not held this assumption about other aspects of personal appearance, and my friends have indeed called me out about these prejudices. For example, I had some friends call me out about a prejudice toward overweight people. Now, if you ask me, I know that there are many reasons for being overweight. It is an extremely complicated issue, and I know this. I also know that I am built the way I am largely because of genetic influences outside of my command. The same is true for every other being. It’s irrational and reprehensible for me to be biased against overweight people. And yet, when my friends pointed out my words and actions, I had to admit, they were right. I was giving myself way too much credit for being unbiased about weight. And true to form, I was unaware of it. They were acutely aware of it, and since they’ve called me on it, I’ve tried to correct it. That’s on me for assuming I was neutral when in fact I was biased. I don’t want to make this mistake with weight, or race, or other important aspects of living. So I am fighting against it.

I don’t know if my assumption is right for you. I’m not trying to lecture, although I’m certain this article could be perceived that way. It’s OK. I already know that I’m often perceived as a know-it-all jerk. But with the assumption that I am racist, I guard against the tendency to assume I know-it-all about race. I guard against the tendency to give myself too much credit. And I give myself a fighting chance to let others inform me about their experience in the world and how I play a role in that.