If you are a white person who grew up in the United States, you are very likely racist.
From an explosion of research beginning in the 1990s, we now know that the majority of white people who take the implicit association test (IAT) for racial bias do demonstrate biases against dark-skinned people.
In a 2007 study of over 2.5 million IAT responses, University of Virginia psychology professor Brian Nosek and colleagues reported that 68% of participants demonstrated negative implicit attitudes toward black people, dark skin, and black children.
A 2010 follow-up study headed by Nosek revealed that despite the US election of its first black president, little had changed.
That’s because people in the United States are surrounded by messages of white as default, white as safe, white as best. And we internalize those messages. We pick up the signals all around us, starting as young children, often without our knowledge.
Those signals are in the picture of the white police officer in uniform next to the picture of the unarmed black man he shot looking scruffy and dangerous. They are in the viral media coverage of the black woman slapping her son instead of the one performing surgery on someone else’s child.
Good guys ride white horses, and wear white shirts. Bad guys wear dark clothing and drive black cars. White witches are the ones you want to find in the woods. Black witches, of course, have black cats, which are bad luck. In the world of computer security, black hats are the malicious hackers and white hats are the heroes. There are white knights, black hearts, white wedding dresses, and black markets. The Christian devil is the “prince of darkness.” Jesus is often depicted in robes of pure white.
There is more here than anecdote. In 2009, two Virginia psychologists using a test similar to the IAT found that people associate light-colored words with morality and dark-colored words with immorality. The pair published their results in a paper titled, “The Color of Sin: White and Black are Perceptual Symbols of Moral Purity and Pollution.” That’s right. Purity and pollution.
White people want to not be racist.
“I think that [not wanting to be racist] stops a lot of [white] people from growing, thinking; ‘I’m not racist, I don’t have racist beliefs,’ because it’s impossible…,”
Yet, “you have to be from a different planet not to be racist and white in this country.”
“Race always matters,” Hector Adames, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Chicago school told Quartz. Why is that?
“Race always matters because it was established as the defining feature of who was human and who was not human…Race has shaped the history of every individual who has set foot in this country.”
Studies have found that the human brain shows heightened responses in sensory and emotional areas when we observe others in pain (a likely marker of empathy), but not so much when the person in pain is a different race. We literally do not feel the pain of others.
White People Can Change
It’s a three step process:  Become aware of your bias.  Develop concern about your bias’s consequences.  And finally, learn to replace biased automatic responses with those that more closely match your beliefs.
Studies emphasize the need for white people to place themselves among people of other colors, cultures and ethnicities. Remember the paper reporting that white peoples’ brains don’t respond to the pain of non-white people? Neuroscientists and psychologists in the journal Cortex found that white people’s brains begin to show more empathetic responses as they gain more experience with individuals of other cultures, ethnicities and skin color.
“Connect with people of color that are healthy in their ethnic identity.”
In other words, don’t go looking for people whose ideas align with yours. Find someone who will make you grow. “Put yourself as a white person in a situation where you experience discomfort, but you are willing to listen to the experiences of others.”
Experience the lives of people of color, not as a savior, but in the terms of the community. Self-improvement requires work, “You need to be listening and paying attention to what kind of thoughts you are having.” Your automatic thoughts and body cues will help you tune into your implicit bias.
We want not to be racist. Science says we are. We want race not to matter. Science says it does.
The solution is simply to admit it. And then we must to listen and pay attention.
Racial biases hurt others. White people we are racist. Now let’s get to work.