Thursday, February 26, 2009

Taking the Implicit Association Test

Way back before the budget, the stimulus, initiation of universal health care, the withdrawal of troops, the commitment to environment, the inauguration, and the election of Barack Obama, like four months ago, Nicholas Kristof provided a link in his NY Times column concerning the Implicit Association Test.  At that time, Obama being black was still a huge concern on everyone's mind, and so there was this nifty Harvard-generated test to see if a conscious-subconscious divergence kept you from speaking your (possibly racist) mind. It basically tests how you perceive social images (race, gender, sexuality) and the labels you associate with them.

Take your pick of IATs:  Presidents, skin tone, sexuality, 2008 Presidental election, weapons (ability to recognize white and black faces, and images of weapons or harmless objects), disability, religion (recognizing different religious symbols, especially Judaism), Native American,  race (black-white), Arab-Muslim, age (young-old), Asian American, Gender-Science (link between females and liberal arts and males and science), Gender-Career(family-females, career-males), and weight (preference for thin people to fat).
A test to prove that you are visually susceptible to stereotypes, in that you see images and press a key (i.e. left hand for black, right hand for white) without taking too much time to think, trying to make as few mistakes as possible (or the test is 'uninterpretable'). So with enough practice and a retooling of your brain, you can will yourself into the non-racist, non-sexist, non-ageist, non-weightist, non-hatist score. Lots of hand-eye coordination effort is required (like a video game?), and really having to repel the feeling that the word 'angry' seems to always precede the image of a black man, and the word 'happy' seeming to preced a white person. This may be an implicit reading into the test, but it begs to wonder are we so conditioned by the media that these automatic knee jerk interpretations abound, or is the test, by dint of taking it, making one (me) paranoid?

Full disclosure:  I cheated on the Asian-American test. When given sketches of folk that were 'Asian' or 'hybrid Asian' I would train, yes train myself to press the American key. When the sketch (and does sketch allow more ambiguity than photo?) of a Caucasion or non-Asian would flash up, I would think of them as European and press the 'Foreign' key. There were 4 parts to the test--another section would flash Washington monuments or American iconography, like the HOLLYWOOD sign or the Golden Gate Bridge along with foreign monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge or the Sydney Opera House to determine whether it was American or foreign.  Then there was mixture of face and monument together to determine whether it was European American/foreign or Asian American/American.  Finally, the faces and places would all appear and the left key would be Asian American/foreign and the right key European American/American.

That was the first time I took it, before the Obamasphere started to restore Bushy America. And my result was that I greatly associated Asian American with American and European American with foreign.  Yeah!  I fixed it right.

Even fuller disclosure: upon refreshing my mind for this blog entry, I took the test again, and seriously, I started getting confused by parts three and four--the St. Louis Arc I froze up on (couldn't decide if it was foreign or American), and I kept making mistakes, more mistakes during the Asian American/foreign combo (part 4) than during the European American/foreign combo (part 3).  Alas my score this time, to 'remind' me of the test, was that I slightly associate European Americans with being American more than Asian Americans being American. Did my explicit and conscious test-taking yield errors and paralysis that allowed my implicit associations to take over? Well, a new part of the result that I didn't get previously, when I greatly associated Asian Americans with American was this:  There were too many errors to determine a result.

Alas, why the folly? Why does such test exist? To make us aware of how susceptible our perceptions are to a biased media?  Perhaps. But Obama himself is himself transcending all of this assignment--I have never seen him as an angry black man filled with hate and blaming the system.  Weirdly, I see him as kind of stoic, like the East Asians are usually assigned, instinctually embracing a reality-gripping outlook, perhaps too gloomy for most Americans, who want more fuzzy Reagan optimism from their leader during a time of crisis. (Isn't the fuzzy what allowed bad decision-making?)

But most importantly, Obama makes these types of tests seem obsolete--his inhabiting the office is implicitly shattering the stereotype every minute.  And because he is free from the usual racial, even presidential associations, he can then act freely and boldly, for instance quickly overturning all of the morally conservative Bushoise legislation (stem cell, abortion rights) and addressing the urgent issues swiftly and explicitly to set a new course for the nation.

Maybe it is just a new level of political legerdemain--we can only judge with time--but its heartening to know that this president knows the performance the citizenry needs to gain his trust and feel like the government is thinking about them. I certainly hope he does as he means to, and continues to model a new kind of American who can ambitiously dream up the solutions, but stay clear-eyed enough to recognize the props and illusions which stand in for answers without addressing the realities.  
As for the Implicit Association Test, have a go here.  See if your conscious-unconscious divergence may reveal whether you 'know your mind' well enough to speak it.



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