Implicit Bias & Representation

I was reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell last night, since I was bored & tired @ my parents’ house, and there was a chapter on implicit bias, and implicit bias tests. Basically you try to categorize things based on sorting them into two columns – like “white & good vs. black & bad” or “white & bad vs. black & good” – and the time differential is an indicator of your subconscious associations. You’d be quicker to sort the list w/ “white & good” vs. “black & good” if you have an association between white folks & good behavior.

I first read this book years ago, and I was really surprised by how hard the test was. The thing that was surprising last night was how easy it was to get my brain to “flip”. I just thought for a moment about police brutality, and white/black/good/bad felt like it wasn’t nearly as difficult a sort to make.

I think this is one reason, maybe, that every time a black person gets killed by the police, there’s always someone painting them as a villain of some kind. I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional, but I think the thing is, as long as you can maintain that “white/good black/bad” association, you keep an immensely powerful advantage that relatively few people know exists in your pocket. If you don’t paint them as the villain, you start to erode that until one day it’s flipped.

Which is of course one reason representation matters (among many, of course). People are subject to implicit bias of their own groups. Black people have a negative association of black people. Which sucks. But we’re all subject to the same overwhelming media messages, and it’s no wonder that the opinions we develop are shaped by them.

Which is one reason I really enjoyed Rogue One. (Yeah, yeah, that’s sort of a jump). Donnie Yen & Jiang Wen’s characters had this really great relationship that was sort of “traditional Asian-y”, but also really not. They were likable, charming, even in one character’s “inscrutability”, it fit the universe, and didn’t bug me that much. Baze Malbus might be one of my favorite characters in recent memory, but it’s not even really fair to say that I liked Baze, because it’s really how Chirrut & Baze interact that defines their characters.

It’s obviously not a coincidence that Force Awakens & Rogue One had female leads. And no coincidence that they had prominent “minority” characters (in that universe, who’s to say?).  And I really appreciate that about Disney’s handling of the universe.

I get it, though – why some folks are bitter about not having white male heroes. A lot of folks say things like, “But you’re not losing anything,” or “there are plenty of white heroes” or whatever. But it is a loss – it paints others in better light. Making the association “female/hero” or “asian/brotherhood” or “latinx/hero” – in the implicit bias test, it’s not exactly a zero-sum game because losing the association between “white/good” is a loss to that demographic, even if in the end, it’s because “everyone/good” wins.

For me, though, I’m happy progress is being made. I’m happy for “women/good”, “women/hero”, “asian/good”, “black/good” – happy for all of it. If white/good loses its very-long-standing grip on “good” it’s genuinely better for everyone. Imagine that world. Wouldn’t you rather live there?

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