BLM Allies: It’s Time to Take This Harvard Test About Subconscious Bias

Protesters pose with Black Lives Matter signs on the Golden Gate Bridge during a demonstration against racism and police brutality in San Francisco, California, on June 6, 2020.  (VIVIAN LIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, in the aftermath of an unprecedented number of protests against police brutality, cities around the country started to take steps towards dismantling systemic racism.

Minneapolis committed to “end the current policing system.” In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to reroute funding away from the NYPD and towards youth programs and social services. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would abandon plans to give the LAPD a massive budget increase. And the Democrats just introduced the Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill that would, among other things, ban chokeholds.

These actions felt simultaneously swift and long overdue; a direct result of both the scale and intersectionality of the protests. But some cultural critics have raised questions about whether or not allies are in this for the long haul.

Over the weekend, in a New York Times opinion piece titled “Allies, Don’t Fail Us Again,” Charles M. Blow pointed out that, for many white people who marched and organized alongside black protesters in the 1960s, the struggle ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

“Many of the white liberals who supported the movement had been moved by embarrassment, moved by images of cruelty rather than the idea of genuine, equitable inclusion,” Blow wrote. “How will our white allies respond ... when civil rights gets personal and it’s about them and not just punishing the white man who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck? How will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege?”

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In 2020, if systemic transformation is going to be meaningful, efforts by protesters must not stop with police reform. Activism must not halt the moment that shelter in place is over. And if allies are truly committed to racial equality, self-examination and holding oneself accountable must be an integral part of pushing for progress and parity.

In 2007, two professors—Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington—developed an Implicit Association Test (or IAT for short) designed to expose subconscious racial prejudice that might be lurking beneath otherwise anti-racist surfaces. (“Most Americans,” the test cautions, “have an automatic preference for white over black.”)

Nosek told the North Bay Bohemian in 2007, “There’s stuff in my mind that exists there without my permission, without necessarily my desiring it and without my necessarily being able to control it. And so what that introduces is that I may be behaving in ways that are inconsistent with my values without even really recognizing it.”

The IAT on race—which takes less than five minutes to complete, and is hosted by Harvard University—evaluates subconscious bias using the test subject’s own automatic impulses and reflexes. A series of short online exercises ask the user to categorize photos of white and black faces, and a series of positive and negative words (including “joy,” “love,” “wonderful,” “agony,” “terrible” and “nasty”), as quickly as possible. Results reveal whether you have a weak, moderate or strong “automatic preference” for black or white people.

The first time I did the test, a decade ago, I was sure I would ace it. I was a lifelong liberal. My first protest march, at the age of 14, was against the racist British National Party, and I’d attended many others in the years since. Since the age of 18, my best friend has been a woman of color. I believed myself, wholeheartedly, to be not racist, consciously or otherwise. So when I did not get the test results I had been expecting, it was sobering to say the least.

Afterwards, not only was I compelled to take a greater interest in issues around racial inequality, I began checking myself like never before. These practices, ongoing since—and directly prompted by—my first IAT, have yielded positive outcomes. This week I took the IAT again and it gave me the results I had been hoping for the first time around.

While taking the IAT can make for an uncomfortable experience, it is undoubtedly a useful one. You cannot undo what you don’t know is there. If allies truly wish to make a change and do better, our actions must go beyond protesting the most obvious, egregious kinds of racism, and also delve into the more insidious and invisible barriers to equality. The IAT is an excellent place to start.

You can take the Implicit Association Test here.