Implicit Bias, and Doing vs. Being

Last week, I took an implicit bias test as part of my homework in a Know Thyself class I’m taking through Coursera. The test was designed to explore a theory that much of our mind’s workings are totally unconscious, and not even possible for us to access, even though they still influence our actions. In particular, it is believed that many of our prejudices exist in this deeper, inaccessible part of ourselves, hidden from us even as we consciously believe we harbor no convictions about one group of people being better than another.

When I took the test, I found that I have a “slight preference” for people with light skin (meaning that I have a slight tendency toward racism). Although I don’t like my results, I wasn’t surprised by them, either — not because I consciously consider myself racist, but because I know that the “isms” are much more pervasive and slippery than we’d like to think, and this is precisely why discrimination continues to exist in a world where many people vehemently deny their prejudices.

Timothy Wilson, one of the researchers at the forefront of the “adaptive unconscious” debate, reverts back to Aristotle’s instruction to “Do good, be good” as a way to combat whatever internal “ism” we might harbor. “Fake it till you make it” is the more common translation of this principle. Essentially, the best way to combat the prejudice you carry within yourself is to act as if it’s not there.  This isn’t the same as denial, which I think has caused the most harm when it comes to institutionalized prejudice. That’s because when we don’t acknowledge our prejudice, it’s more likely to show up in our actions than if we assume it’s there and consciously act against it. This is separating “love” as a feeling and “love” as an action. Research has shown that changing our unconscious feelings is difficult if not impossible — but we can always change our actions.

In Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, she argues that without action or ritual, any religious belief system is meaningless. She also prioritizes “right action” over “right belief” — meaning that even if you harbor significant doubts about your chosen faith, it still has the potential to do immense good if you act as if it’s true. In time, your actions may even have a “trickle down” effect, to truly change your consciousness. But if it doesn’t, if you still carry the same old unconscious prejudice, at least you’ll be making your best effort to cancel out its effects.

In light of Justin’s post yesterday, I’d love to challenge Dolan and Cordileone to take the implicit bias test for heterosexism. Somehow, I suspect that, despite all their claims about how much they “love” gay people, they’d find that they have a “strong preference” for straight ones. Perhaps in acknowledging this, they could find a way to move closer to a truly authentic love, in thought and especially in deed. Perhaps in seeing that they are, in fact, prejudiced, they would work harder to examine whether their actions were truly reflective of love, and get over this fiction that “love” involves denying adults rights “for their own good.” Because honestly? I would have so much more respect for clergy who said, “Yes, I’m homophobic, but I’m working on it,” than those who twist the word “love” by thoroughly denying it in their actions. Somehow, I expect that upholding divisive teachings about human sexuality might feel a whole lot more like what it is after you’re forced to admit that you are, in fact, prejudiced.

This “acting as if” isn’t going to be easy for any of us. But I believe Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in changing the tide of the deep pools of our primordial prejudices — and I don’t think he demands it of us. However, he does demand that we love both God and neighbor — and since no one can be forced to feel love, we must instead make a commitment to act love, every single day, regardless of our deepest, darkest belief systems. When I see Catholic clergy acting “love” the same way more progressive churches do (being truly welcoming and inclusive of GLBTQ individuals and their relationships, inviting everyone to the communion table), I’ll be less concerned with how they really feel. But as for now, I harbor serious doubts about both their feelings of and their actions of love. And with both components missing, love doesn’t mean much at all.

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2 thoughts on “Implicit Bias, and Doing vs. Being

  1. Pingback: Implicit Bias and Being vs. Doing | LL Word

  2. “Fake it till you make it” can help, but I think it can be problematic as well. I think contrived rules and behaviours can actively prevent going deep into the source of prejudice.

    Ultimately, prejudice arises from structures in the self. These structures need to be exposed to the light of consciousness in order to be torn down and reshaped. This involves a process of introspection and nonjudgemental observation, in which you allow thoughts and feelings to arise but don’t respond to them with other, modifying or opposing thoughts and feelings, nor do you get carried away by them and feed them with supporting thoughts and feelings. You just observe, and stupid things tend to wither and die by themselves that way. If you immediately label a racist thought or feeling as “bad”, you won’t be able to go any deeper. You’ve stopped investigating. You’ve thrown up a taboo, a mental roadblock.

    Ultimately, what separates you from another? Or from everything else, for that matter? This applies to anyone and encompasses all “isms”. Cut hatred at the root, and all the particular forms of hatred die together. There may be dead branches and leaves left cluttering your being afterwards–these are easily swept away.

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