Helping Students Understand Prejudice

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Helen Boucher, Psychology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

In the fall of 2000, I was a Graduate Student Instructor for a Cross-Cultural Psychology course. One of the purposes of the course is to help students understand variations in behavior across cultures and ethnic groups. Although not on the syllabus, I felt that any discussion of culture and ethnicity had to include an understanding of the prejudice and discrimination that can occur as a result of them. Discussing these topics is understandably difficult, however, and what usually happens is that students clam up and won’t participate, usually out of embarrassment and fear of offending other students. I tried to solve this problem in a somewhat controversial way, by using a technique to get at so-called “hidden prejudice” that is more commonly used in social psychology laboratories.

The “Implicit Associations Test” (or IAT) was developed to measure the automatic associations, or nonconscious mental responses, that people have about certain groups. The way the test works is fairly simple: The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (black, good, white, and bad, are the concepts used for the IAT having to do with racial groups). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them when they are paired together. So if black and good, for example, are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond quickly to them. If they are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. Thus, the overall time it takes people to react to the paired concepts gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. A typical finding in the literature is that most people taking the test show a nonconscious negative bias towards certain groups (African Americans, the elderly, etc.), even if they consciously espouse egalitarian attitudes towards them.

I had set up an email list of all my students in my sections, and a couple of days before their scheduled sections I asked them to visit a website and take the race IAT, merely saying that it was a brief exercise that would facilitate discussion sections later that week. It turned out that many of the students had visited the website and taken the test. I asked them to write down on a piece of paper what their result had been and then hand the papers to me. A quick calculation revealed that about 85–90% of all the test-takers had a negative automatic association towards African Americans. When I revealed the results to the class, there was a moment of stunned silence. At that point I quickly explained that a negative automatic association was not the same thing as consciously-held racist attitudes, and asked my students to think of why they may nevertheless have scored that way. In a sense, the cat was out of the bag, and what followed was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion of the media, parental and peer influence, Affirmative Action, stigma, conscious versus nonconscious mental processes, and how something like a nonconscious negative association about an ethnic or racial group could be overcome.

I was worried about how this experience might affect my students, so at the end of each section I asked them to anonymously evaluate the activity and the discussion that followed. I was pleased to find that most of my students, while at first nervous and angry at their score on the IAT, said that the section was extremely useful in helping them understand prejudice. Some of my students later mentioned the activity in my GSI evaluations, saying it was the most interesting of all the discussion sections that semester.