Social scientist and professor of psychology, Jennifer Eberhardt, examines how we hold racial biases.
The brain, it turns out, likes to categorise information, putting things into simple groupings, allowing us to navigate busy, complicated daily life. Instinctively, before we even think, we apply this to the faces we meet. Whole races get lumped together in our minds. Fascinatingly, the latest neuroscience reveals that from a very young age we are better equipped at differentiating the faces belonging to our own race. We can see the individual, whereas when asked to identify people of other races, we struggle. White people see black people as a vaguely homogenous group, all looking the same. Jennifer Eberhardt tells of her own struggle differentiating white faces when she first went to a majority white school, having grown up in a predominantly black community.
Bias is hardwired in us and must be managed. From this scientific launching pad Eberhardt takes the reader on a fascinating and disturbing history of racial bias in America. So much has been written on the topic, and one may be tempted to think they already know the subject inside and out, but Biased proves that to be wrong.
Racial biases against African-Americans work at just about every social and economic level, creating entrenched disadvantage. Eberhardt quotes one dispiriting study, where researchers sent off dummy job applications. One set of applications had typically African-American names, such as DeShawn and Shanice, while the other had typically white names. The white names got the bigger response. These results have been replicated in other studies.
Another study, this time examining bias against women, tested job applications for professional orchestra musicians. Applicants were asked to audition “blind”, behind a curtain. Carpet was even laid out to mask the sound of women's heels. The results showed that women were hired at a much greater rate if the examiner didn't know they were women. An ingrained bias exists that men are better musicians.
Is there a way out of bias? We can manage it better by slowing down our reactions. It's when we make lighting quick decisions that our biased, reptilian brain takes over. Employers, institutions, even websites, need to implement tools that help us think twice. Some online platforms are trying to weed out racial bias by making users read and agree to relevant terms and conditions. Research has found this has a positive effect.
Jennifer Eberhardt's Biased is a cracking good read, sure to completely change the way we think about bias. Its mixture of science, research, history and personal story makes it endlessly fascinating. A game-changing, enlightening book that will make you re-examine your own behaviour.
Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, by Jennifer Eberhardt. Published by William Heinemann. RRP: $35
Release date 16th April
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books