Recently the L.A. Times published an opinion piece We're all racists, unconsciously
that commented on the recent lurid and bizarre racist outburst of comedian Michael Richards at the Laugh Factory. In his public apology on the "Late Night" show hosted by David Letterman he said: "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this."
This commentary piece by Michael Shermer proposes what the author playfully terms the ďKramer's ConundrumĒ He poses this rhetorical question:
ďRichards' shattered demeanor and heartfelt repentance
leaves us with what I shall call Kramer's Conundrum: How can someone who spews racial epithets genuinely believe he is not a racist? The answer is to be found in the difference between our conscious and unconscious attitudes and our public and private thoughts.Ē
ĒConsciously and publicly, Richards is probably not a racist. But unconsciously and privately, he is. So am I. So are you.Ē
|Click on the graphic to view not so funny Michael Richards (Kramer) bizarre racist tirade at the Laugh Factory.|
The hypothesis of unconscious or implicit bias is gaining more traction partly due to the compelling evidence for it produced by technique such the Implicit Association Test available for anyone to take for himself or herself at Harvardís Project Implicit.
This subject of implicit bias that is also addressed in greater detail in Implicit Prejudice Unconsciously Colors Our World, which focuses on the work being done at Harvard by social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji amongst others, is a compelling developing area of research. The implicit association tests provide us with some excellent practical tools of self-discovery. I highly recommend this exercise for everyone the results may be quite surprising and maybe even troubling for many.
Implicit bias makes a lot of commonsense as an idea, after all, most of our mental existence is unconscious and by the time a conscious thought pops into the center stage where our conscious life plays itself out an impressive amount of pre-conscious and unconscious mental activity has already taken place off stage so to speak. It makes sense that prejudices of all kinds reside below the surface of our perceived existence. Our minds are like an iceberg and like an iceberg most of our mind lies beneath the waves in the obscurity of the water below. We float upon and are shaped by our unconscious minds.
Further on in the article Michael Richards points out ďWe are by nature sorters. Evolutionists theorize that we evolved in small bands of hunter-gatherers when there was a selection for within-group amity and between-group enmity. With our fellow in-group members, we are cooperative and altruistic. Unfortunately, the downside to this pro-social bonding is that we are also quite tribal and xenophobic to out-group members.Ē
While on many occasions hunter-gatherer clans do exhibit hostile behavior towards other bands this is not universal or the inevitable behavior that occurs between groups or with strangers. For example, surprisingly long distance trading networks existed in Paleolithic times as evidenced by flint, obsidian or other important or valuable items such as seashells for example being found in areas very distant from naturally available sources. Many loosely confederated bands of hunter gatherers did inter -marry and have other forms of social intercourse such as trade and religious gatherings. The degree of xenophobia exhibited by hunter-gatherer groups that have been studied also varies considerably from culture to culture. It is important to keep in mind that the in-group versus between-group social dynamic picture is more complex, nuanced and subtle than a simple amity/enmity dichotomy.
So letís zoom back to our modern world and to the subject of Michael Richardsí strange racist tirade. It may be generally true that we are a bunch of implicit racists, but it is not universally true. Not every person is an unconscious racist even if most people are unconsciously influenced by an underlying bias that they may be unaware of and in fact deny that they have. In other words the degree of implicit prejudice varies from one person to the next.
Also the fact that implicit prejudice may exist within us does not excuse overt behavior or ugly words. To bring up an extreme example many Ė perhaps most -- people who murder other people do so while being driven to a high degree by their sub-conscious minds, but this is no excuse for the crime they have committed. We must remain responsible for our conscious actions and the existence of implicit prejudice is not an excuse for bad behavior even though it may in fact pay an important underlying role in much bias.
Recognizing that we all have a tendency towards prejudicial thought is an important milestone and can act to clear the air, but it is not enough to recognize it and then stop there. It is an important first step, but cannot be the destination. It can however help us begin a mental journey. Once we do come around to this realization that no matter what we may consciously maintain to the contrary we may, in fact, be driven by sub-conscious behavior and associations that are prejudicial then we can begin to learn to recognize these kinds of thoughts as they pop up unannounced in our heads and learn to consciously over-ride them. In the same manner that a person with any other impulse disorder learns to consciously override the unconscious impulse with an exquisitely conscious decision to not allow the impulse to rule their lives. A conscious and sustained pattern of overriding the signals that are generated by whatever implicit prejudices are operating within and consciously replacing those impulse type behaviors will over time help us to free ourselves from being driven by these mental zombies.
It is very hard to quit smoking, as I know all too well. Impulses pop up all the time and are associated with so much in our daily life. But if we persevere and resist these impulses slowly they begin to recede and lose their power over us. After many years they fade becoming a feint echo of some memory we once had. Quitting the unconscious habit of racism is also very hard, but if one perseveres it also fades away.