Our Unconsciousness regarding Privilege and Bias

This is stuff regular readers likely already know, but it’s nice to have links to stuff for others. Two recent op-eds from the NYT discuss how decision makers in a wide range of gatekeeper roles are more likely to make discretionary accommodations for some people than others while not noticing that this is what they’re doing:

Ian Ayres | When Whites Get a Free Pass: Research Shows White Privilege Is Real

This elegant experiment follows in a tradition of audit testing, in which social scientists have sent testers of different races to, for example, bargain over the price of new cars or old baseball cards. But the Australian study is the first, to my knowledge, to focus on discretionary accommodations. It’s less likely these days to find people in positions of authority, even at lower levels of decision making, consciously denying minorities rights. But it is easier to imagine decision makers, like the bus drivers, granting extra privileges and accommodations to nonminorities. Discriminatory gifts are more likely than discriminatory denials.

A police officer is an out-and-out bigot if she targets innocent blacks for speeding tickets. But an officer who is more likely to give a pass to white motorists who exceed the speed limit than to black ones is also discriminating, even if with little or no conscious awareness. This is one reason the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite is so powerful: It draws attention to the racially biased exercise of discretion by police officers, prosecutors and judges, which results in whites getting a pass for the kinds of offenses for which minorities are punished.


Nicholas Kristof: Straight Talk for White Men

Supermarket shoppers are more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing, and to buy German wine when they hear German music. That’s true even though only 14 percent of shoppers say they noticed the music, a study finds.

Researchers discovered that candidates for medical school interviewed on sunny days received much higher ratings than those interviewed on rainy days. Being interviewed on a rainy day was a setback equivalent to having an MCAT score 10 percent lower, according to a new book called “Everyday Bias,” by Howard J. Ross.

Those studies are a reminder that we humans are perhaps less rational than we would like to think, and more prone to the buffeting of unconscious influences. That’s something for those of us who are white men to reflect on when we’re accused of “privilege.”


Both these pieces repeat the most important point about privilege that just doesn’t seem to sink in for some people: social privilege is not about our individual choices, it’s about what social systems tout as “normal” for everybody but nonetheless deny to some and not others. We don’t tend to perceive something we’ve never been denied as a benefit, it’s just part of the background. The dozens of times every single day that some of us are given a “free pass” or at least “the benefit of the doubt” by a decision maker because of our skin colour or our gender or our name or our accent/dialect or other signifiers of various status stereotypes sail right by most of us who receive them – as per a metaphor Kristof uses in his column, these discretionary accommodations are some people’s never-noticed tailwinds while simultaneously being other people’s always-noticed headwinds. Blocking the headwinds to make the race fairer also means blocking the tailwinds, and it’s the loss of the boost previously given by those tailwinds that is then decried as “unfair”.



Categories: ethics & philosophy, Sociology

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