Social Psychology, Phenomenology, and the Indeterminate Content of Unreflective Racial Bias

In Emily S. Lee (ed.), Race as Phenomena: Between Phenomenology and Philosophy of Race. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield International. pp. 87-106 (2019)
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Social psychologists often describe “implicit” racial biases as entirely unconscious, and as mere associations between groups and traits, which lack intentional content, e.g., we associate “black” and “athletic” in much the same way we associate “salt” and “pepper.” However, recent empirical evidence consistently suggests that individuals are aware of their implicit biases, albeit in partial, inarticulate, or even distorted ways. Moreover, evidence suggests that implicit biases are not “dumb” semantic associations, but instead reflect our skillful, norm-sensitive, and embodied engagement with social reality. This essay draws on phenomenological and hermeneutic methods and concepts to better understand what social-psychological research has begun to reveal about the conscious access individuals have to their own racial attitudes, as well as the intentional contents of the attitudes themselves. First, I argue that implicit racial biases form part of the “background” of social experience. That is, while they exert a pervasive influence on our perceptions, judgments, and actions, they are frequently felt but not noticed, or noticed but misinterpreted. Second, I argue that our unreflective racial attitudes are neither mere associations nor fully articulated, propositionally structured beliefs or emotions. Their intentional contents are fundamentally indeterminate. For example, when a white person experiences a “gut feeling” of discomfort during an interaction with a black person, there is a question about the meaning or nature of that discomfort. Is it a fear of black people? Is it anxiety about appearing racist? There is, I argue, no general, determinate answer to such questions. The contents of our unreflective racial attitudes are fundamentally vague and open-ended, although I explain how they nevertheless take on particular shapes and implications—that is, their content can become determinate—depending on context, social meaning, and structural power relations. (If, for example, a perceived authority figure, such as a politician, parent, or scientist, encourages you to believe that your uncomfortable gut feeling is a justified fear of other social groups, then that is what your gut feeling is likely to become.)

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Alex Madva
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


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