Our Subconscious and Racism

Through my work, I’ve learned about the strength of our subconscious mind and how we underestimate its power. Our subconscious holds many beliefs and opinions that actively affect our behavior, and most people are completely unaware.

I just finished taking the Race Implicit Association Test (IAT) available online at www.implicit.harvard.edu. I recommend you take it, if you haven’t already. When I did this, I took the “Race IAT” but currently, you would take the “Project Implicit Social Attitudes” survey, which measures your implicit associations about race, gender and sexual orientation. I was disturbed by my results.

I am the author of Leveraging Diversity at Work and I facilitate diversity workshops internationally, yet my score showed I have a slight preference for European-Americans over African-Americans. I would have hoped that I would have scored as hoping to score in the no preference category, but what this test measures are those hidden feelings in our subconscious. For research purposes, you’re asked where you consciously place yourself in your preference of the races. I believed I saw both races as equal, but my subconscious told a different story.

There are other IATs available and I recommend taking as many as you likeCheck it out to see if your conscious beliefs are lined up with your subconscious tendencies.

As I am beginning to understand this dynamic, I find it may explain some things that have been puzzling to me. As a white female in the US, when I talk with other white people, most will denounce racism as wrong. They will state their conscious beliefs that all people are equal and that they believe in equality for all. They do not participate in oppressive thoughts or behavior, and some even say that they are an ally for minorities by taking public stands against prejudice. This led to my understanding that while racism is still alive and well in some areas, overall, white people are less racist than in years past.

I would be right if I were only measuring conscious beliefs. Most white people are against prejudice and oppression consciously, but many are affected by their subconscious programming they’re unaware of.

Compare this with the experience of many Black and African-American people in the US. Most Blacks I know will deny that racism is any less prevalent than it used to be. Sure, there have been laws passed to protect them from overt discrimination, but there are so many instances of covert, systemic racism that it’s difficult to tell where it is coming from. Could this be because they pick up on the subconscious beliefs of most White Americans? In fact, the Race IAT showed that 27% of all who took it, Blacks and Whites alike, show a strong preference for European-Americans and another 27% show a moderate preference for European-Americans, accounting for 54% of all people taking the test. The rest of the people are distributed among five other categories: slight preference for European-Americans, no preference, slight preference for African-American, moderate preference for African-American, and strong preference for African-American with decreasing percentages representing each of these subsequent categories.

Stephen Young has developed the program MicroInequities: The Power of Small®. Research shows that the content of our verbal messages means far less than the “subtle, often subconscious signals representing the core of the messages we send,” such as eye rolling, undivided attention given to one group and not others, eye contact, arms folded, etc. MicroInequities are “cumulative, subtle messages that occur when these signals are negative or promote a negative bias. MicroInequities are not one-time events. They are cumulative, repeated behaviors that devalue, discourage, and impair performance in the workplace.” Of course, they can come deliberately from our conscious mind, but I believe most often MicroInequities are glimpses into the beliefs of our subconscious mind.

The first step in understanding this phenomenon is to gain information—take the test. Understand what your subconscious believes and tells you on a daily basis. Know that you are not responsible for the programming you received. Most of the messages programmed into your subconscious were in place before your sixth birthday. You couldn’t defend against them, as they came from the culture in which you were raised.

However, now that you know about the disparity between your conscious intentions and your subconscious beliefs, you are responsible for taking or not taking action. If you want to take action, you need to become aware of these messages and place yourself in situations that will expose you to positive messages and associations with whichever group you have been biased against. Gaining more positive information and experiences to balance out the negative is the only way to counterbalance the influence of our subconscious.

Bring your subconscious into your conscious awareness. Don’t allow it to play uninterrupted in the background of your daily experience. Shine a light on it and commit to aligning your subconscious with what your conscious mind tells you to be true.

Want to learn more about diversity? Get a free tip sheet, Diversity Appreciation & Inclusion.

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