- Posted August 21, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Everyday racism: Your stories
Coming out of the colorblind closet
I’m a 39 year-old, married, Asian physician, Ivy League professor and father of two. My wife is Caucasian and I’m racist.
Aside from the fact that I’ve written about emotional and psychological traits associated with specific ethnic groups, I have preferences and assumptions associated with ethnic groups and races, probably more than I may realize, some of which help me be a better doctor and some which may not.
Recently, we’ve seen a celebrity chef, NFL player and high-end Swiss Boutique adamantly deny racism in situations where the evidence strongly suggests otherwise, re-polarizing Americans around the heated topic of racism. I strongly believe that we will not make progress when it comes to racism and racial disparities until we stop insisting that we are all colorblind while acknowledging the reality of racial differences, and considering racial preferences to be inborn human tendencies that, like most traits, exist on a spectrum throughout nature.
While there is considerable controversy about the definition, if we consider racism as actions that reflect beliefs or preferences about various human races, studies have demonstrated that babies are racist. David J. Kelly from the University of Sheffield, U.K., has authored papers that describe babies as young as three months as having strong preferences for their own race. Racial biases in facial recognition and perception are seen in preverbal infants, according to work by Lisa Scott and colleagues from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. While many argue that racism is all nurture as opposed to nature, these aforementioned studies suggest that racial preference may be inherent in some.
The idea that we may have innate racial preferences makes sense from both an evolutionary and psychoanalytic perspective. We are driven to ensure the survival of our genetic material and to satisfy and defend our needs and selves over others. We have been discerning self from other by race, ethnicity and culture for thousands of years, most obviously in the United States during Slavery, and only recently has our westernized, collective conscience deemed this way of organizing the world as socially unacceptable or taboo.
If racial preferences or dislikes are innate drives that are becoming more socially unacceptable, the more we insist on colorblindness and denying our racism, the more neurotic and conflicted we become around this issue. All it takes is a visit to most CNN comments sections with anonymous posters to know that many of us have intense, negativistic thoughts and emotions that are divided along racial lines. While most dating sites are tight-lipped about racial preferences, OK Cupid quantified our conflict in sharing data that shows how we cling to ideals of not having racial preferences while actually having strong ones in practice, calling the discrepancy “schizophrenic.”
Paula Deen, Riley Cooper and Zurich’s Trois Pommes all deny racism, maintaining their colorblindness – a mindset that includes the belief that de-emphasizing racial differences facilitates equality. Research, however, suggests that promoting a colorblind approach can lead to turning a blind eye to overt racism while hampering the prospect of intervention. As would be the case in telling a Holocaust survivor that there is no anti-Semitism or a bullied, gay teen that homophobia is not real, the denial of racism to one who has experienced it is profoundly invalidating.
Maybe it’s not just a ‘race card’. Maybe we stand to benefit from not judging and denying but, rather, realizing and understanding why we might prefer dates or movie stars of a certain race, why an Ivy League institution might have different admission standards for an Asian applicant compared to a Latino, or why American physicians are more likely to diagnose a black man with schizophrenia. What might we learn from continuing to identify and study inherent racial differences as well our tendencies to prefer or reject certain races?
Christine Dehlendorf, a researcher in healthcare disparities at UCSF, has shown that a woman’s race or ethnicity impacted whether health care providers recommended one of the most effective forms of contraception. This is just one of many racial disparities that we have studied in healthcare that really underscores the reality of how well-meaning, professional individuals who are probably not racist in almost every sense of the word are still susceptible to subtle, likely subconscious racial bias. In addition to being mindful of our own racial biases to prevent disparities, it is just as important for a physician to know when to look for and understand true racial and ethnic differences.
In the field of psychiatry, a doctor’s ability to identify and understand cultural and racial factors can make a big difference in formulating an accurate assessment or treatment. Discerning a cultural belief or tendency from a delusion or mood disorder could mean the difference between choosing psychotherapy or a psychotropic. A psychopharmacologist and her patient benefit from knowing genetically-mediated, racial differences when it comes to metabolizing certain drugs or susceptibilities to drug reactions in certain races. In these situations, acknowledging and understanding unequivocal and robust racial differences could be the difference between life and death.
As is the case in the psychotherapy, our gaining insight into and accepting that of which we are in denial or unaware is sometimes the initial step toward progress.