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"I have Black friends" - the importance of incidental exposure
You’ve heard this one. A white man says “I’m not racist, I have black employees.” So offensive. But the truth is, even slight exposure to people of different backgrounds, say at a job or passing on the street, may make folks at least ready to learn more about them. This paper gives evidence that people learn implicitly from incidental unsupervised exposure to things that they know nothing about and aren’t even trying to understand. The specific neuroanatomy was not mentioned in the paper, but this does jibe with other information I’ve come across on cultural plasticity, where incoming information imprints primarily on the sensory cortex, but can begin to change the behavioral centers, where the stubborn implicit biases seem to reside. So yes, it turns out that the first step in to turning around an ignorant, prejudicial attitude is to have some experience with folks who have that background. So “I have black friends” seems irrelevant, but it turns out, it may be a promising start.
Am I racist??
Because my self identified demographic is probably white woman 30-90, the experiences of people of color are a blind spot for me at times. Recently I taught a class where I spoke daily about women in science. A quiet student stayed after class one day saying, “What about women of color? You don’t discuss them.” What a terrible oversight. I care about the experiences people of color–but it’s clear that I have some intergroup bias and I believe I can train my brain better. I mean, I attend seminars, read Bell Hooks and put signs in my lawn, But I think I need to be more active. When I was 20, my roommate Tony, a Black man, invited me to an anti-racism rally. I declined, and he implied that I was racist, that people who don’t specifically act in opposition to discrimination, support it. 30 years on, Tony now sees the issue as more nuanced, not so black and white (his words) but I think he had a point. Actions, not intentions.