Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Do you know your own mind?

In a previous post, I talked about racism, and mentioned the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This book explores how we think without thinking--in the blink of an eye. How our instinct oftentimes take into account our lifetime of experience. He talks about a psychologist who can predict with 95% accuracy if a couple is going to end up together 15 years from now after watching a tape of them interacting for an hour, and 90% accuracy after just 15 minutes. He describes the tennis coach who knows when a player will double fault before the racket hits the ball. And part of the reason why they can do this (they weren't born with this skill) is that they have become experts, with experience and training, their minds have been honed to do this. Although I'm not sure if I can really call myself a children's book expert, I think if I'm an expert in anything, that's it. And in my job, I often know if I'm going to turn down a manuscript after reading one sentence, (Of course I read more than that just in case!), and it comes from reading so many books and manuscripts and knowing what I like and what I don't.

Well, Gladwell also explores when perhaps we shouldn't trust our instincts, and one situation is when racism or preconceptions come into play. He talks about this test, which I had coincidentally taken before reading the book, because a friend had forwarded it to me. It's completely fascinating, so I highly recommend checking this website out and taking a few tests:

This is how the tests are described on the site:
It is well known that people don't always 'speak their minds', and it is suspected that people don't always 'know their minds'. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods. This new method is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.

According to Gladwell, over 80% of people taking the Race IAT end up having pro-white associations. Even Gladwell himself showed a "moderate automatic preference for whites"--and he himself is half black! I showed a preference for whites as well after taking the test, and considering I'm a minority myself, I don't consider myself racist (although since I've taken these tests before, I know that everyone is, a little bit...).

Gladwell says, "The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values...of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good." (p. 85)

But what I found MOST amazing (and please bear with me, I know this is long, but thanks for reading this far!), what I found most affirming and hopeful was this section of one paragraph:

"...believe it or not, if, before you take the IAT, I were to ask you to look over a series of pictures of articles about people like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Colin Powell, your reaction time would change. Suddenly it won't seem so hard to associate positive things with black people. 'I had a student who used to take the IAT every day' Banaji says, 'It was the first thing he did, and his idea was just to let the data gather as he went. Then this one day, he got a positive association with blacks. And he said, 'That's odd. I've never gotten that before,' because we've all tried to change our IAT score and couldn't. But he's a track-and-field guy, and what he realized is that he'd spent the morning watching the Olympics.'"

I found this hopeful and affirming because one of my goals of being in publishing is to make sure that minorities and other unrepresented groups are featured more in children's books, because I know from personal experience that it really troubled me as a child to not see characters that looked like me in the books I was reading (let alone magazines, television, and movies). I was so thirsty for characters that were like me that whenever a character had black hair, I would think hopefully, "Maybe she's Asian!"--I even wanted Snow White to be Asian. And I think this is also partially why I loved the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery more than the Anne books (although of course I loved those, too!)--because Emily had black hair. This is normal--we all know that kids want to see themselves in the books their reading. That's why we buy books like Eloise for little girls named Eloise, and Fancy Nancy for girls named Nancy (alas, not Alvinas in any of the books I was reading, either! Although as an adult I did find a D.H. Lawrence book The Lost Girl with an Alvina in it and of course read it even though it was not very good).

And especially for minority kids growing up in mostly white communities, the positive "examples" of people who look like them are even less. And when white children aren't seeing any kinds of depictions of kids of other ethnicities either, that's problematic as well. I often realized that I was oftentimes the only example of an Asian person that some people ever met, and I certainly don't think I'm a great representative of my ethnicity!

So, to have this confirmation that seeing positive, diverse images in children's books can make a psychological difference, a subconscious difference, to lessen the bias against people of color, well, this was so affirming for me. It is important. It does make a difference.

Take the tests here, see how you do.


Disco Mermaids said...

Interesting post, Alvina. I also found your recent rumination on racism fascinating. Being from a multicultural family myself, and having grown up all over the world, I always found it strange that most kid books primarily featured white people (even though I'm white).

I'm so happy to hear a respected and influential editor commit to creating more stories about kids who have been underrepresented for so long. It's incredibly important!


Laura Atkins said...

Really interesting post, and I went and took loads of the tests (It gets addictive!). It does force self-reflection, in all sorts of ways. And as you say, it's so important that the books children read reflect the huge range of what it means to be human and experience the world. John Agard said at a recent conference that he sees diversity as meaning, "every culture has a story to tell." This seems to me a really positive way of looking at it. For me, I had a lesbian mother from the age of 12, and how often did I get to see that in a book? In my early 20s, finding a book of essay by people with GLBT parents was surpizingly meaningful. I hadn't been aware of the lack until then. There are so many fantastic stories to be told, in different voices, using different ways of telling and language, and offering new and perviously unseen perspectives. I'm glad there are people like you still editing books with this sort of awareness.

I think I'll get my husband to do the UK vs. US test tonight. I found that I slightly favored the UK, which for a transplanted American in England was interesting. I don't think the photo of Bush helped, though!


Grace Lin said...

this is really interesting...I'm going to post a link to this on the brg

Agyw said...

Grace had posted about this thread on the BRG and thank you!

Alvina (as someone growing up with the name AGNES, I understand the no-name-like-mine identity, good and bad, that!) I could go on and on and bore the heck out of you.

I'm a true American MUTT. I was born in Ft. Wayne Indiana during the Civil Rights movement, in what was predominently black neighborhood (my father was going to college, it was what he could afford). My mum was sick a lot, so my primary caregivers were my father (full-time student and employed) and a black woman that only remember as "Mammy". She was one of the people that gave me music, and hugs-- I grew up with a dearth of hugs.

Anyhow, I also have some RABIDLY racist family (found out later that we've been "passing" and other family skeletons). After thinking about childhood considerations and a profound conversation with Rukhsana Khan about the nature of race and privilege, I find myself writing (and illustrating) about such things.

The present pb I'm working on, was a friend who's mother ran the "colored" vacation home in Old Orchard Beach during the Jim Crow years. Unfortunate as that was, it did provide a living for her mother and her six brothers and sisters. She not only met people from many walks of life, she was exposed to the greatest talents of the Harlem Renaissance. She also became the first African-American certified schoolteacher in Maine (the schools had been skewed against black people teaching-- at one point, when the school her brother Emerson went to learned he was learning piano, they incorporated policy that "coloreds" couldn't learn piano!)

Anne's grandfather was Shurtleff Emerson, white abolitionist (he was lynched) and relative to Ralph Waldo, his wife 1/2 member of the Nation and 1/2 black.

She was an absolutely remarkable individual, singing up till the end of her life (Duke Ellington was her friend and wanted her to sing with him. Mom and she decided it'd probably be safer to be teacher!) though she spent nearly the last twenty years bed-ridden due to MS.

I obsess, because I KNOW this is a great and necessary story. I knew and loved her, and shared many interests, yet, that demarcation of color. But it's a larger story and I usually don't feel qualified to tell it for that reason. One can go crazy with insecurity and indecision when one feels dwarved by such a delicious burden (it's a real challenge on so many fronts!).

Okay, I've gone on far too much, but the focus has been on the work on one level with my crit groups. But this is such a personal project and HUGE (yeah, I blog about the process, probably too much, but it helps clarify) You have no idea how appreciative I am of your insightful post. Oh and Malcolm Gladwell-- now ANOTHER book.

Thank you again

Rita said...

Can't wait to take these tests.

When I was little, I used to go around arguing passionately that Snow White could be Asian, too! I even said I would play her at Disneyland.

(Should I be admitting that?? Well, I was little.)

Also, a friend recently had me and D listen to Blink in her car. Fascinating!!

Great post!!!

At first, I found your post affirming just to think the multiculturally themed kids' books I buy my friends really could be making the psychological difference I've been hoping, in the way their kids see themselves in the world.

Then I re-read and realized: perhaps I should buy these same books for my white friends' kids. Interesting.



Lisa Yee said...

There's a wonderful exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles by Kip Fulbeck. One of the things in it is a montage of "ethnic" Disney characters and how they all look like. well . . . generic-ethnic-character. Lilo, Pocohantas, Mulan, Tiger Lily, etc. It's hysterical!

Rita said...

Hey! Thanks to Lisa Yee's comment, I checked out JANM today!! I love JANM!!

I ran over there during my lunch break (jury duty), because, like downtown LA's MOCA, they let in jurors free. :D

In addition to taking in the Kip Fulbeck exhibit, I watched as much of the video as I could—including the bit about Disney. I loved it! THANKS!!


topangamaria said...

I'm passing this test along
to the daughter who's taking
psychology in high school.
It's such an interesting exercise.
I thought I was so liberal but found it hard to push the buttons.
Very eye opening !!!!!!!!!!!
Thank you for that education.

Nancy said...

Nice post. I took the race test, and turned out to have "little to no preference", which pleasantly surprised me. Gladwell says it's very very hard to outsmart the test.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Great post. I like to feature books with kids/people of color on the cover in our library because I want the kids of color to see faces they recognize. (Also because I just like to see them) You have reminded me that it's good for the white kids/teachers too.

Color Online said...

Thank you. I wish the white teens who are asking why we are making such a big deal would read this.

I know the kids who don't get aren't all teens, but it was was disheartening when I read it on a popular blog. I sighed and thought, well at least this bloggers comments were in the minority.