On implicit bias and a half-naked black boy with an axe
April 19, 2020
Last summer, I conducted a little act of sabotage at the preschool where I worked at the time. I noticed a picture collage at one of the classroom doors, a loose assembly of a variety of kids from all over the world. Most of the kids looked happy and healthy. Most of the kids were white. There was only one image of a black child. It showed a young boy, standing upright and proud, looking straight into the camera. He wore no shirt and sweat was running down from his neck over his bare black torso that looked too muscular for his young age. His left hand casually on his hip, he carried a rugged axe the size of his upper body in the other. The axe's handle looked as if it is carved from a giant bone. It was a strange picture. And it bothered me immensely.
Why?, you might think, it’s just a picture of a little boy in a tiny pre-school on a Swedish island, can you not even let children out of your politics? No, I can’t. Here’s why.
The "doll test" is as relevant today as it was in the 70s – as the results haven't significantly changed
Racist bias starts from an early age on. Studies have revealed that children as young as three already favor white over black and brown faces. Among the various experiments is the so-called “doll-test” by the US American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, a test that used different dolls to test children’s racial perceptions. The dolls were identical except for their skin color. The kids were asked to attribute different positive and negative characteristics to the doll, as well as identify their own appearance with one of them. The majority of the tested children preferred the white doll and assigned the most positive characteristics to it. Groundbreaking as this study was in the 1940s, its significance is equally valid nowadays. In fact, there is modern versions of the doll test that show that nothing has really changed – the results are still the same 70 years later.
Harvard professor Mahzarin R. Banaji studies implicit biases and how our brains (re-)produce problematic racial judgments. In an interview from 2018, she tells an anecdote of how she mistook the anesthesiologist for a nurse when she was to have surgery: “these stereotypes are not good for us: you do not want to be in surgery with an angry anesthesiologist working on you!”, she says jokingly. Her research delves into serious issues, however. Implicit biases can, among other things, be explained by the brain’s capacity to pair up things – the more commonly two or more things are associated, the faster the brain will be able to reproduce and transfer this coupling process. And since it is much more common in our society to have male doctors and female nurses – voilà, there is your implicit bias.
You probably have heard about this little story that a majority of people find deeply confusing: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”. “If you guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s gay, second father, you get a point for enlightenment, at least outside the Bible Belt.” writes journalist Richard Barlow. “But did you also guess the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If not, you’re part of a surprising majority.” I remember how when I first heard the story, my initial reaction was puzzlement. “Umm, but didn’t the dad just die in a car crash…? Is this one gonna be about ghosts or something?”, I thought, and there I was, part of the biased majority.
Studies show that three-year old children already show race-based bias
As part of a research team, Banaji conducted a test series known as the IATs (Implicit Association Tests). Participants of the study had to pair up cards that depicted light-skinned faces with cards with positive and negative words. Consecutively, they were asked to do the same with the faces of people of color. The result – people were much faster to pair up white faces with positive words as they were with dark-skinned ones. And that was the case for both white and black participants. The principle is similar to the doll test. But whereas the IAT studies internalized racism among adults, the doll test shows how deeply biased black kids are against their own race, against themselves. The heartbreaking emotional and cognitive challenges that this entails were described by the Clarks who reported that some of the children would refuse to answer or start crying and run out of the room.
Why are kids that young already biased? At the age of three, you would think that they haven't even learned to see race yet. But of course they have. They just don't have the words for it. In fact, that is precisely what makes them brilliant observers. They pick up on so many subtle things, on looks, interactions, emotions, and of course they also understand a lot more than they are able to speak, so they will understand and internalize racist things they hear. And when they're non-white, there is of course plenty of personal experience that makes them realize, even though they cannot put their finger on it, that the kids with light hair and blue eyes are somehow... better. When I was a little girl, I looked into the mirror crying, I studied my own face and tried to understand why other kids were making fun of me. For me, I didn't look any different. But that is how I learned that I did.
This is part of why I found the image at the preschool so disturbing. If you can be certain that little kids are already biased in favor of white skin, do you really have to exacerbate that by putting up a picture of a black child that looks like a UNICEF ad from the 90s?
Images count. Because images tell stories that can be much more powerful than words. The picture of the black boy with the axe tells a story about oppression, exploitation, about child labor, poverty and a stolen future. For many people, it tells a story about “Africa” and about victimhood. Looking at it provokes feelings of sadness, compassion, helplessness, guilt (that boy might have suffered in a coltan mine for my smartphone!), perhaps fascination, concern, cultural interest. Others might see their racist prejudice about uneducated, dangerous black people confirmed. Sure, if you write a reportage that portrays the inhumane working conditions in a coltan mine in Congo, you may want to use a picture that depicts one of the children who work themselves to death in these mines - though even that could be contested. But showing it out of context just perpetrates deeply problematic stereotypical images of the Noble Savage, the "poor starving African child", or "the dangerous black male".
It's not only about the quantity of instances of representation
Ignoring non-white bodies or representing them in a problematic manner is one way of white supremacy to manifest and exert its power. In one of my previous posts, I described how Pocahontas was my only-ever Disney heroine simply for the fact that she somewhat looked like me (when Mulan appeared on the scene, I was already beyond Disney age), and how I eagerly cut out the rare pictures of Asian women from fashion magazines. Both in the media and the fashion industry, white skin is still predominant, though this has luckily started to change – nowadays, “ethnic” is in (which clearly comes with its own set of challenges). But even though the quantity of representation is increasing, this is not necessarily the case for the quality of these representations. I frequently come across highly problematic depictions of non-white bodies that leave me wondering how their creators can possibly be that ignorant and racist.
I recall a Sunday evening at my parents' place last year: In a very German Sunday evening ritual, everyone had paused their respective activities to come together and watch Tatort (the oldest and one of the most popular police series in Germany with up to 13 Million viewers per episode). The only non-white person in the 90-minute long episode was a Turkish salesman who owned a tiny dim-lit shop where he sold cheap-looking crap and dodgy things; he spoke in a Turkish accent that was supposed to be comical but was in fact simply ridiculous, he was clearly not very bright and touched women inappropriately - that was also supposed to be funny which made it twice as problematic.
Although the way from virtual to actual representation is still long and rocky, it has become increasingly clear that change is under way and unstoppable. Nowadays, non-white children have a wide array of ideals and heroes they can look up to — people who look like them and who embody complex, multi-faceted, deeply human characters. It fills me with joy and hope to see more and more non-white actors on the movie screen as well as behind the camera, to witness and increasing number of bestsellers by non-white authors and feminists in the book shops — and even the way advertisement is finally being diversified and includes people of every shade and color makes me happy. For many people who have never seen themselves represented in that way, this feels big and important. And to a certain extent, it alleviates the capitalist critique that — rightly so — points to the superficiality of this representation that merely capitalizes a glossy image of diversity for profit. Looking at H&M ads for children's clothing, for instance, means looking at a actual bunch of kids, precisely as you would see them on a school yard - happy, out of breath, tousled, and diverse.
Though not the school yard of my pre-school. All those adorable island kids surely have their racial bias because they grow up in today's world and because they grow up in this particular part of today's world, on a Swedish island in a wooden house with their white families and neighbors and friends and role models. Like in so many other fields, the lack of qualified preschool teachers has caused foreigners to jump in and fill the gaps, so although the kids are white, there is several people with Persian and Roma descent among the staff, plus me and a Swedish woman adopted from China. As every modern, progressive-thinking school these days, there is black and brown lego figures and dolls, books and pictures including people of color, and the general discourse of “We're all the same”.
But this image of the black boy shows that there is still work to do. If there had been a picture of a black child looking equally happy, healthy and dressed as the other kids, I still would have noticed but, to use the words of Barlow, they had gotten a point for enlightenment. At the end of the day, that would not have been a correct reflection of Swedish society today but certainly an accurate account of the island’s demographic – there is exactly one black child at the entire school (preschool and neighboring primary). How, I wonder, does being the only black kid around, and seeing himself mirrored in such a picture impact their sense of self?
Why feed fuel to the fire, I thought. I waited until no one was around, tore the picture off the wall, and stuffed it into my pocket.
Note: The only truly right thing would of course have been to initiate a dialogue about these topics both with the kids and the teachers. But truth to be told, I didn't want to compromise the brittle acceptance of my (white) colleagues for which I had been working so hard.