Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Double-dog Racism

I was just listening to an interview with Michael Shermer, noted skeptic and scholar, about the Michael Richards tailspin. Shermer explained that everyone harbors some racist feelings inside them that are inhibited by society and can be released by alcohol (as in the case of Mel Gibson) or rage (as in Richards' case.) Shermer goes on to reference an ongoing project by Harvard to determine people's "implicit assumptions" about various groups of people. I encourage you to try it for yourself, because knowing what's coming may bias you, but it basically involves sorting pictures of people from different races and different categories of things at the same time. For example, the first test I did was the black/white, good/bad test, in which you sort white and black people's pictures and words with good or bad meanings. It said I moderately associate whites with good traits. Shermer said that this is true of two thirds of whites and half of blacks. That is a truly depressing statistic, that despite our best efforts these associations lurk within us.
Then, since I am married to a Korean and have lived in Korea for four years, I decided to take the Asian/white, American/foreign association test. I'll give you the punchline first. The test says that I slightly associate Asian faces with Americanness, and White faces with foreignness.

What's . . . what?!?

Heres how the test works. You have to sort pictures of white and Asian faces with pictures of American and European monuments. So in fact, I associate Asian faces with American national monuments like the St. Louis Arch and The Statue of Liberty, while I associate The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, and The Tower of London with white faces.

This is highly reminiscent of the famous maze navigating drosophila melanogaster test run years back. Scientist dumps a bunch of Drosophila in a 3d maze, takes the first ones that come out and breeds them. Through the generations he gets the time way down. He's finally created a race of super-smart flies without the use of a teleporter machine and Jeff Goldblum. He sticks the fastest of the fast in a maze alone and it doesn't come out for an eternity. He puts a hundred more flies in the maze and he pops right out. What he had created was not a race of super-smart flies, it was a race of super-antisocial flies who would flee when confined with too many other flies in a maze.
By the way, the only time I ever see or think about The Washington Monument, The White House, Mount Rushmore and The Empire State Building are when they appear in the English books I teach to my (mostly) America-obsessed students, who happen to have Asian faces.

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