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Studies show… Using racist instruments to determine racist attitudes

5 August 2019

On social media sites like Facebook I quite often see posts that begin with phrases like “Studies show…”

These are often contradictory — studies show that drinking any amount of alcohol will kill you, but drinking a glass of red wine a day will make you live longer. Studies show that children brought up without religion are more empathetic, but studies show that those with a religious upbringing are happier.

And so it goes…

Then last week on Facebook I got an invitation to participate in a study. It was The South African Implicit Bias and Attitudes Study and was said to be “a study investigating how empathy, intergroup anxiety and contact, affect bias in the racial attitudes of White and Black South Africans” done by an honours student in Australia.

I thought I would try to participate, but I began wondering how well the survey questions would measure what they said they were trying to measure, and one question in particular seemed to me to make appallingly racist assumptions:

If you were the only white person and you were interacting with Black people (e.g., talking with them, working on a project with them) how would you feel compared to occasions when you are interacting with other White people?

And you then had to indicate on a scale of 1-10 whether you felt “extremely” or “not at all:

  • Impatient
  • Awkward
  • Certain
  • Accepted
  • Careful
  • Self-conscious
  • Irritated
  • Defensive
  • Happy
  • Confident
  • Suspicious

I thought that question was based on racist assumptions.

If I were working on a project with other people my feelings would depend almost entirely on the nature of the project, and my relationship with the other people, and their attitude to the project. Whether they were black or white would hardly affect it at all. And it would vary very much from project to project. There were a huge number of variables that the survey simplistically collapsed into one, assuming that Blackness and Whiteness were the only important and significant characteristics of people, and that assumption is the foundation, the essence, and the defining characteristic of racism. How can you accurately measure racism with a racist instrument?

If I thought about it, I could probably think of several projects I had worked on where I was the only white person, and all the others were black, and my answers would be different for each one. But the first ones that sprang to mind has these results. The figures show, first, how I felt working on the project where all the others were black, and second, on another project where all the others were white, on a scale of 0-9:

  • Impatient (0-8)
  • Awkward (0-9)
  • Certain (9-2)
  • Accepted (9-0)
  • Careful (3-7)
  • Self-conscious (0-9)
  • Irritated (0-7)
  • Defensive (1-8)
  • Happy (8-1)
  • Confident (8-2)
  • Suspicious (0-7)

Now let me describe the projects I had in mind.

The one where I was the only white person and all the others were black was planning a Partners-in-Mission Consultation for the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. We held several planning meetings and the conference was successful. The other members of the planning group were Peter Biyela, Patrick Gumede and Meshack Vilakazi, all Anglican clergy with whom I got on well. We had differing views on various topics, and could have vigorous debates, but we worked together well and happily on this and other projects.

The second project, which was at roughly the same time, was the parish council of the Anglican parish of All Saints, Melmoth, which at that stage was all white. The project was the establishment of a pre-primary school which would use the parish hall. Those who had children under 6 were generally in favour of the project, and those who did not have children of that age were generally opposed. The meetings were far more stressful than those where all the other participants were black, and the difference had nothing to do with the blackness or whiteness of the people taking part, but rather their attitude to the project and to the others at the meeting.

These racist assumptions can also be seen in a question I recently saw on the Quora web site. You can click on it to see my answer, but how would you answer that question?

Is a black person’s personality different from a white person’s personality?

That relates also to another question in the study: To what extent did you see Black people with whom you had contact as “typical” Black people?

But what is a “typical” black person? Is there a typical “black” personality? The opportunity to answer is on a scale of “Not at all typical” to “Very much typical”, which begs the question of whether there is such a thing as a “typical” black person at all. Another racist assumption.

But let’s play along with it a little.

Back in the days of apartheid I worked as a bus conductor in Johannesburg, and because of apartheid, there were separate buses for “Europeans”, “Non-Europeans” and “Asiatics/Coloureds”. So I had a good opportunity to learn what was typical (or stereotypical) of the different races. The whites tended to be grumpy. The Indians tended to be icily polite. The coloureds tended to be obstreperous and badly behaved. The blacks tended to be more variable, some chattered, some given to singing, some quiet, some noisy. And passengers (we called them “clients”) of all groups would be different depending on whether they were drunk or sober. The Asiatic/Coloured buses had both the best-behaved and worst-behaved passengers; the Indians who were mostly Muslims, were never drunk. The coloureds often were. So yes, it was easy to form stereotypes.

But they were bus passengers. I didn’t know them personally. They were clients. They didn’t know me personally. I was just some functionary to whom they handed over their hard-earned cash in exchange for a bit of coloured paper. Some times there were regulars who would catch the bus at the same place at the same time of day, and I might get a smile from them.

Then one day Desmond Tutu caught my bus. Route 79A, Parktown North Non-Europeans Only. He was going to see the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg by whom he was to be ordained the following Sunday — it was long before he became famous. So once I had collected the fares I chatted to him until he got off the bus at the stop nearest the bishop’s house. And suddenly half the passengers were talking to me, most animatedly. “Who was that guy? How do you know him? Where does he come from? Where do you come from?”

And I spent the rest of the trip chatting to the passengers, telling them a bit about Desmond Tutu and how I knew him, and for a brief moment the client/functionary relationship had been disturbed, and a bit of personal relationship had been allowed to appear on the buses. I also reflected that if it had been a “Europeans Only” bus, the “typical” (or stereotypical) response would probably have been very different.  The white madams of Parkview and Parktown North would have sniffed disapprovingly and perhaps one or two may have written letters of complaint to the manager of the municipal transport department registering their disapproval at a bus conductor being “familiar with a native”.

But thinking of people you know personally, rather than impersonally as “clients” on a bus, as being “not at all typical” or “very much typical” of black people or white people seems somehow repulsive to me.

I don’t think that all studies of people’s attitudes are bogus, but where a study has questions with racist presuppositions, as this one did, one must at least question the methods used.And it reminds me that when I read things on the Internet that say “Studies say…” I must be careful, and perhaps even suspicious at a level of 8 or 9 on the scale of 0-9.

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