Better Media Can Make Us All Less Racist

Photo credit: "Stop Racism," by Felix J. Fuchs, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Our brains are really good at finding patterns. This makes us great at performing simple tasks quickly and efficiently. It also makes us racist as hell.

Let me tell you about a time I participated in an online research survey. I was told that I would be shown a series of images of both black and white people. I was instructed to click one of two buttons for each picture, as quickly and accurately as I could—I should click the button that read “Good” for pictures of white folks, and “Bad” for pictures of black ones. I shrugged off my discomfort with the task in the name of science and got to clicking. After a few seconds it was just another meaningless task, requiring no more thought than a Captcha. After about thirty seconds, I was done with the first portion of the test, and I was given a new set of instructions. This time, I was to click “Good” for pictures of black folks, and “Bad” for pictures of white ones—again, as quickly and accurately as I could.

After two or three photos flashed by, I realized what they were testing for. This new task broke my brain. I was noticeably slower now. Making my fingers comply with the new association, I felt a very similar disconnect as when I try to write with my left hand. I tried to build myself some new neural bridges on the fly, to think of all the black people that I loved and all the white ones that I hated, but my speed didn’t improve. I was trying to blot out a pattern that was programmed in too deep.  

Allies Acknowledge Their Racism

I already knew that I harbored racist biases. At least, I thought that I knew that about myself. It’s something you’re supposed to know, if you’re a woke white ally. You acknowledge your privilege, and you never say “but I’M not racist!” You’re supposed to acknowledge that on some level, you are. And yet I still thought I would do better on a test like this. Even as I was so uncomfortable on an intellectual level with the notion of identifying white images as good and black ones as bad. I was actually hoping for something like the second half of the test, a redeeming section that could prove that I didn’t really feel the things it was asking me to say. Even as I thoroughly rejected the notion that white is good and black is bad—my brain still believed it on some level, whether I wanted it to or not.

I do take solace in one fact. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the “black = good” section came second. I believe that part of the test was to prime me with the first association in order to trip me up with the second. I don’t know that I would have done much better if they were reversed, but I know how much power priming has on our thoughts.

Associations Matter

That got me thinking. What other racist associations are priming my brain every single day? Every time I see a black gangster depicted on TV, being thwarted by a white hero, does that put another link in the chain between “white = good’ and “black = bad” in my brain? If you’ve ever studied cognitive biases, you’ll know that many of our strangest brain quirks and associations came about as time-savers and survival-builders. Our brains are incredible at recognizing links and building patterns. We see Thing A associated with Adjective B enough times, and our brain builds us a shortcut that we never notice we were taking.

The same mechanism that tells us that red equals danger and blue equals calm has noticed the repeated message that brown people hold guns sideways and white people wear ties to work. It reflects an incomplete, distorted view of reality, but we’re only intellectually aware of that. Your brain wants to save you from saber-toothed tigers, it doesn’t give a shit about making you a good neighbor. Your biases think that they are protecting you, giving you that .0001 second advantage in reaction time by skipping a few logical steps to make a conclusion. But our biases aren’t protecting us. They’re killing us.

A Society That’s Bleeding Out

Basing our behavior off of lazy patterns and free associations was useful for hunters in tribes. It’s bleeding us out as citizens in a society. As the disturbingly common occurrence of police brutality and murder tells us, we have a fucked-up notion of what constitutes a threat in 2017. Police officers are making snap judgements based on complexion, and those decisions are coming down the barrel of a loaded gun. What they see is a black man on a sidewalk, a black child in the park, a black woman in her car, and the assumptions they make tell a story. Suspicious. Non-compliant. Aggressive. Armed. Dangerous.

They aren’t taking aim at individuals, they’re taking aim at a mental composite of every gangster, thug, pimp, and criminal they’ve ever seen depicted on TV. The fact that those individuals have names and families is a secondary concern meant for the logic portion of their brains that was not even invited to the adrenaline-soaked party.

How Do We Fix It?

Racism is a social disease, so how do we cure ourselves? I truly believe that the answer starts with representation. It’s also going to take a whole lot of uncomfortable truths, soul searching, and personal sacrifice to drag us kicking and screaming down the path of racial justice, but I believe that better media representation can be a real start.

Think about all of the queer people who reported feeling accepted and valid for the first time after seeing themselves reflected in a role. Hell, you don’t even need to go that deep to know that the media determines how we feel and act. Just look at all the huskies that got adopted (then abandoned) because they look like Direwolves and dalmation puppies that got adopted (then abandoned) after the movie 101 Dalmations came out.

As a society, we are made up of the stories we tell. Right now, the stories we tell about black people are still quite ugly ones. Racist tropes and narratives pervade blockbuster films, prime time TV, and best-selling books and shape the ways we understand and interact with our neighbors. Black-led projects and stories are still grossly underrepresented in prestigious industry awards and sales charts. This underrepresentation is robbing children of color of the opportunity to see heroes that look like them reflected in their screens. It’s also robbing white America of the ability to see neighbors and allies in those children’s faces instead of dangerous threats.

For my part, I’m pledging to buy, watch, and read more black stories this year. I just Kickstarted a comic called Is’nana the Were-Spider, and it looks like it’s gonna be sick.  I invite you to join me, and you can start with this list that’s been personally recommended to me by my friends and Twitter followers. I can’t promise that each and every title will be unblemished and free from a single problematic spot, but I can tell you that it’s better to start somewhere and celebrate the media we have rather than wait forever on perfection. Our black neighbors, friends and allies cannot afford that wait.


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