Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Yoko Ono: ‘Racism played a role…’ How do you really know?

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Anderson Cooper 360, just yesterday, ran an interview with Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon. Ono disclosed how she felt unfairly blamed for the breakup of the Beatles, and invoked both race and gender as having played a role in the blame game. "You know, Japanese woman and whatever," Ono reflected. While certainly a provocative claim, her lack of specificity in actually explaining how race and gender may have played a role did not enlighten many. It's reminiscent of the way LeBron James evoked race as playing a role in reactions to "The Decision," but not going into the specifics of how. "It definitely played a role in some of the stuff that came out in the media, things that were written, for sure," asserted James.

OK, but how?

My guess is that Ono and James probably only have an ill-defined sense that if they were not members of their particular social categories, things would have been different. Yet, since Ono and James cannot turn into different people – she cannot but be a Japanese woman, and he a black man– and things can only turn out one way, the rest is delegated to the land of conjecture. This is where we get into angry debates, since nobody can actually prove or disprove whether racism, sexism, or discrimination indeed played a role.

Yet here is where science can play an incredibly helpful role. With science, it is possible to create worlds in which the same person can– yes!– actually change race so that we can examine whether things in fact do turn out differently depending on social categories. I'm not talking about mad scientists experimenting with genetics and cloning; I'm talking about something much more pedestrian and routine.

Take a look at the following two photos:

Portrait of two children These are two pictures that I used for my own dissertation; I created them using Photoshop so that I could be sure that if people were going to judge this child differently, we would only be able to attribute it to the racial category information conveyed through skin, facial features, and hair. Same kid, different race– suddenly we are quite literally able to answer the question: would people treat this child differently if he were a member of a different racial category?

I asked two different groups of people to simply look at the picture and to take their best guess about what this child would be like. Of course, we can't really expect much accuracy on the basis of a single photo (besides, the child they were being asked to judge isn't even real, as the image is a composite of faces), but that is not the point. The point, rather, is this: all else being equal, do people guess differently depending on the child's race?

It turns out that they do, but only under specific conditions. When I asked people to simply guess what the child was like, and this was the only task at hand, their impressions of the child were very nearly identical. However, when I asked them to guess what the child was like, while at the same time I asked them to keep a nine-digit number in their head, people's ratings suddenly showed a clear bias. They expected the White child to be a lot less aggressive than the Black child.

Keeping a nine-digit number in your head while judging another person may seem like a contrived task, but it is directly analogous to the everyday situations we face that involve judging others while multitasking. A teacher has to decide whether a child is being belligerent or merely childish in class while also keeping track of 30 other children. An executive on his cell phone has to decide whether the guy who bumped him on Madison Avenue intentionally pushed him. A cop has to decide whether to shoot at the person coming around the corner with something in his hand while the sirens are blaring.

Do you think that these social judgments would turn out differently if the person being judged were black or white? People who cite discrimination often ask the public to think whether the same thing would have happened if they were of a different race; I was part of more than one conversation about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s arrest in his Cambridge home in which people would ask rhetorically, "do you think this would have happened if he were white?"

My point is that we do not have to rely on hypotheticals that are so often reduced to conjecture to make the case. We have scientific data that can directly compare alternative worlds to prove the case. This is the power of psychological science, and this blog is designed to share this knowledge directly with readers who are interested in harnessing this power for the common good. For more on the science of discrimination and prejudice, pick up a copy of the recent book Are We Born Racist?

I realize I myself have left you hanging. How exactly do race and gender play a role in the negative reactions to Yoko Ono and LeBron James? We explore this in my next blog entry this week. Stay tuned.

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.