A Therapist Tells You a Secret. Do You Really Want to Know Everything?

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In the search for information and closeness to your therapist you can’t predict what you might discover. I will use the subject of race to illustrate. Two subjects, then: racial bias and yours truly, a retired psychologist who was not always admirable as a stand-in for your counselor. The question of self-knowledge, too, is on my agenda, absent in most of our prejudices, replaced by the ability to rationalize our thoughts and actions.

Ugh, I hear you say: what can one offer about race that hasn’t been uttered to the point of numbness. I’ve groaned myself. More often I’ve grumbled about unfairness to minorities, blamed the big bigots, or written a check to a noble cause. My buddies from Mather High School even established a college scholarship program for disadvantaged teens of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.

Sounds admirable, right? Read on if you dare. You might find something out you don’t like, something to knock me off any pedestal given me by your generosity, a coin flip, or my own effort to climb on top.

We come by vulnerability to racial bias as part of our evolutionary inheritance. Humans who didn’t notice differences became someone else’s lunch. The tribe next door was quickly identified as “other.” Otherness made both sides wary. Those who were too welcoming too fast suffered a bad end. They are not our ancestors. Yes, cooperation was essential to survival, but care had to be taken about anything signaling danger.

We also want to think of ourselves as “better than” someone, more in control, deserving a more advantaged life than they. The “other” comes in handy here, too, for the sake of drawing contrasts. Read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death to investigate this light subject.

Still more of us seek simple advantage by becoming a top dog over the Untermenschen, which has typically included benefits like money, power, status, and mating opportunities.

The trickle-down theory of prejudice applies as well. The one who is mistreated — the one who is hated — becomes the hater. And not necessarily aiming his animus at those who inflicted the injury. But sometimes racial resentment derives simply from emulating the deeds and words of the ones you love or the culture in which you live. Then, in bad times, the fire is fueled, whatever its first cause.

Such tendencies do not make anyone evil. But they do require that we catch ourselves leaning.

At least in my generation — the leading edge of the post-war baby boom — most of the white folk were not untouched by racist messages and, more significantly, many absorbed some of the bias. I was one such.

Maybe the most shameful day of my life happened early in graduate school. My roommate and I had a one-year lease on an apartment in residential Evanston, IL. He soon was swept away in romance and wished to move in with his girlfriend. Jim, a quiet, mysterious, handsome fellow — his new fiancé was a beauty too (and they both had terrific abs, having met in a fitness center) — was also a man of honor: he agreed to pay half the rent until I could find someone to take his space. He and I understood, “the sooner the better.” Neither of us was wealthy.

I advertised, of course. The first person to call sounded perfect on the phone, another student at Northwestern. He came with a companion to see my digs. We agreed on the timing for his move-in. Within a couple of days I backed out of the arrangement. Why?

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Though he was born in the USA, his skin suggested an Indian subcontinent origin. Do understand, what I’d learned about race never referred to people who lived in Pakistan or India, other than they might be starving. Such references were common among parents of the time. They wanted their children to “clean the plate,” encouraging us to benefit from the bounty that the unfortunates on the world’s far side lacked.

I had no additional opinions about people from the spot on the map from which this NU student’s ancestors launched themselves. Moreover, he wasn’t starving — he could have been the guy next to Jim in the weight-lifting room. This young man, just a bit more green than myself, was clearly intelligent, displayed good manners, and dressed in the fashion of college students of the day. Well, obviously, he was not green in every sense, the clear point of my prejudice.

By now I had another roommate in line who would replace my replacement for Jim. Larry, the newer guy, was whiter than white. Blond. No better or worse, probably not as smart, different only in individual peculiarities I did not yet know, except — a big exception — for the fairness of his skin tone. I make zero excuses. My act was reprehensible, prejudiced. I looked in the mirror (eventually) and learned from it, too late for the man I discriminated against.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. The group in denial includes those who behave in a way consistent with bigotry, tell jokes dependent upon stereotypes, and vote for candidates who intend to disadvantage minorities while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag. The last of these adopt a faux patriotism that Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We are, almost all of us, pretty well-rationalized. Our sleep is undisturbed, our friends shake our hands, and we receive applause for acts of public generosity. But there are secrets, too, and now you know one about me.

I offer you no grand take-away here. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or even whether one is waiting to be found. But I believe part of my guidance for myself is to do better, learn more, be more understanding — enlarge my humanity and add some little good to the world. Hard to do any of that unless you begin the endless and ancient task of knowing yourself.

The friendly social scientists at Harvard have made it easier. They offer a free psychological instrument designed to help you understand your implicit, unconscious preferences or beliefs: to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the  Implicit Association Test (IAT). Consider the measure akin to the mirror of the evil queen in Snow White.

There are actually a great many tasks you can undertake on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT in blue.

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The Harvard creators take the time to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” (or the reverse) and acts of discrimination/racism. The answer is in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, they inform us, “not necessarily.”

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

Now, say, after me: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall … ”

For sure, this psychologist is not the fairest of them all. In any sense.

Following the Disney images of the evil queen and her mirror (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) comes Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.