Implicit Bias and Romancelandia

I wasn’t raised to be a racist person, but I was raised in a racist world. I lived in my own little bubble, which was mostly white, and thirty years ago I’d have told you that I was socially liberal but fiscally conservative, by which I meant that everyone who was poorer than I was probably deserved it and everyone who was richer than I was probably deserved that too. I now know that neither of those things is true, and that they’re both racist.

I never acted in explicitly racist ways. I didn’t use the n word, didn’t turn down Black applicants if I was in a hiring position, was polite to Black co-workers, so I thought I was good. But no. Thanks to implicit bias, I make harmful judgements based on race all the time. That last sentence is in the present tense because I just recently took an implicit bias test for race and I still come out as moderately biased.

Implicit biases “are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.” [Ohio State University]

You can go take an implicit bias test right now. In fact, if you don’t think you have any bias, then you really, really  should, because we can’t even begin to address it until we admit it. Harvard’s Project Implicit (the race one) will measure how strongly you coordinate positive words with whiteness and negative words with Blackness.

A few years ago, after becoming a little more “woke,” I noticed that I was more likely to smile at someone as I passed them on the street if they were Like Me. That didn’t just mean white, but it definitely meant white. It also meant female, dressed in business clothes during the day, maybe they were jogging. But also white. So I started making a conscious effort to smile at Black people. It’s sad and eye-opening how surprised they are when I do. Honestly. Try it.

That’s my big campaign to overcome my own implicit bias. Sorry it’s not better, and obviously it hasn’t worked, not enough. But I’ve noticed that the smiles come more easily now, that it’s more like Black people make me smile and less like I’m making myself smile at them.

So what does implicit bias mean in romance? It means I’m less likely to buy a book that has Black people on the cover because they’re not Like Me. It’s not intentional, OK? But it happens. Like all of us, I’ve skimmed past hundreds of covers and titles. Did I just skim past that one with the Black person on the cover because of implicit bias? It might not be the only reason, but it’s definitely a reason. That’s why I remind myself to stop and reconsider every time I go past a book with a Person of Color on the cover.

I mostly read KU anyway, so I can try every book. So that’s what I do. If there’s a Black person on the cover, I try it. And if I’m feeling like I “can’t relate” to the character, I give it an extra chapter. Like with the smiling, I’m making a explicit effort in the direction of People of Color in order to compensate for my implicit bias against them.

As a writer, I incorporate diverse characters into my books. A funny thing I noticed when I first started writing: I automatically made any side character in a position of authority male. I did! I’m implicitly biased against my own self! That’s what societal conditioning does to us, and that’s why you’ll find the opposite in my books now. Wherever possible, the judges and attorneys and bosses are women. And some of them are Black and some of them are Hispanic. And I don’t care if I’m over-representing women and minorities in positions of power. I’m explicitly compensating for my implicit bias.

If that feels unfair to you—the slam you always hear against Affirmative Action (which by the way doesn’t work the way you think it does but probably should work that way)—consider that no amount of explicit compensation has yet to make up for implicit bias. Until half of the speaking roles in movies are women, until 25% of RITA winners are Authors of Color, until Hispanic Women make the same money for doing the same job as white men, don’t come at me with “it’s not fair.”

We’ve been unfair to certain groups of people for a long time. We owe them a little “extra fair,” bearing in mind that if we aim for extra fair, we’re still likely to fall far short of fair.

One comment

  1. There are many variants on the study. One involved responses to job postings in newspapers in major cities; another, applications for lab-manager positions in science and social-science departments. More directly responding to the implication of your point about “conservative faculty, implicit bias does not vary all that much across categories. In versions of the study in which the only variable was a male name or a female name at the top of the CV, the responses of male and female reviewers were similar. Implicit bias can be insidious, that way. (I seriously recommend everyone try several variants of the IAT, simply for its heuristic value. When asked to sort items against the grain of my own implicit associations, I found myself laughing at how manifestly difficult the task was!) 1 1 Report

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