Friday, December 18, 2009

Help! My body's racist!

You ever had one of those experiences where it's imperative that you do a lot of very concise thinking and speaking in a very short period of time? Like, say, in an oral exam? And you find yourself incapable of doing so because the only thing running through your mind is I'm supposed to be thinking about David Hume now. I'm supposed to be thinking about David Hume right now. I'm supposed to be thinking about fucking David Hume right fucking now!

You have? Me too. Goddamned David Hume.

Oh, and what a sight you were! Sweating profusely, grimacing, squirming, looking anywhere--the walls, the floor, the infinite distance--anywhere but at the face of your examiner. You were the very picture of discomfort and clear loathing for your predicament.

But the great thing about oral exams is that they are infrequent, and usually are undergone at a stage early enough in your life that the extent of their devastation wasn't entirely comprehended ... You usually shrugged it off by next week, I'm guessing. Yeah, me too.

Here's a question though: You ever had one of those experiences where it's imperative that you do a lot of very concise thinking and speaking in a very short period of time, and you end up being judged not by your carefully considered words--and not even by your body language--but by the body language of an actor on a TV show set on fucking mute?

"White characters are treated better across the board and this has an impact on viewers," said Weisbuch, a post-doctoral psychologist at Massachusetts's Tufts University.

In the first experiment, researchers used clips from 11 television programs – including Bones, Grey's Anatomy, CSI and Scrubs – and digitally removed one of the characters participating in the scenes.

They then muted any onscreen conversations and recruited college students who had never seen the episodes to watch.

"We took out the target character, who was either black or white, and the (remaining) character was always white," senior study author Nalini Ambady said in an interview with the Star.

"Then we just showed people and said `how much does this person like the person they're interacting with?'" said Ambady, a Tufts social psychologist.

The viewers, it was found, consistently judged the body language expressed by the visible white characters as more negative whenever the unseen character in the scene was black.


"Take a medical drama for example, both the black and the white characters were doctors," Ambady said. Yet while the negative body language is certainly not scripted, she was not sure if it reflects innate reactions by the white actors, is directorial in origin, or a combination of both.

"There's no bias in what they're saying, the bias seems to be in the way they are conveying, and we have no idea where that's coming from," she says.

Ambady says positive body language like smiling, nodding and leaning forward while talking is far less common when white characters engage with black co-stars.

"The black characters receive significantly less positive non-verbal behaviour. They're liked less non-verbally than white characters."


Thus, Ambady says, the subtle body-language bias displayed on television can create "insidious" repercussions in subconscious racial feelings among millions of viewers.

"Of course, when someone says something to you that's biased, you can correct for it, you can say `that guy's a jerk,'" she says.

Subjective, did I hear you say? Too, too, too subjective to be taken seriously as scholarship? The same thing occurred to me, but I'm not saying anything. I'm having a hard enough time trying to keep my body language in check, let alone my language language.

But this is priceless:
In a journal commentary on the study, Yale University psychologist John Dovidio said the paper's use of white college students as viewers showed just how potent the non-verbal cues were in creating bias.

"Thus, non-verbal messages influence relatively sophisticated participants who are especially motivated to appear unbiased," he says.

While Mr. Dovidio made no mention of it, one assumes that he was outraged at the clear expression of non-verbal bias evinced by anyone's seeking his opinion on the matter.

... Ah, scraping the bottom of the grievance barrel in "post-racial" America. Next up? Blind taste-tests for racism, I'm thinking.

Pity the poor creature who chooses Sprite.