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An American Dilemma in Scottsing

February 6, 2015

onscreen_american_denialI attended a Community Cinema discussion of the film “American Denial” at The Midwest Theater last night, and I’m still stirred up about it, with a thousand things swimming in my head.

This post is a bit difficult to write, in part because I don’t know where to begin, and in part because this post takes a different tack from what I generally write about in this space.

This blog has focused on highlighting the positives of living here in western Nebraska. The truth is, every place has its warts.

One of western Nebraska’s warts is racial discrimination. (I would note that a vast portion of America suffers from this as well.)

There’s the stuff that makes the news. The student who had a racial epithet written on his car. The xenophobia stirred up by a proposal to bring in Korean workers for a meat-packing plant. The nasty remarks made to the Korean-born spouse of an area resident. And a bit further afield, but still in our broader region, the Native American kids who were mistreated at a hockey game.

And then there were the topics brought up at the discussion last night after the film. A young person who drives around town flying a large confederate flag. Latino people who feel pressure to change who they are to engage with community institutions and white-dominated social groups. A mother who felt the need to take her mixed-race child out of school due to bullying. College students who have noticed stares when they accompany non-white foreign students to local stores.

Getting back to the film . . .

“American Denial” centers around the 1944 study by Swedish economist/sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, published in 1944 as “An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.” One of the central issues raised in the book and in the film was the difficult conflict that can arise between ideals and innermost, sometimes unconscious, beliefs.

Myrdal noted that there was a disconnect between a core value of American society – equality and the sense that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough – and the racial discrimination inherent in American institutions and policies and in the beliefs of many white Americans.

Americans want to be good people. They want to hold up this ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, many of their actions run counter to this ideal, sometimes unconsciously. An uncomfortable truth of American society is that it produces in its citizens an unconscious bias against people of color, even within people of color themselves.

There was a scene in the film that just made me ache. Dark-skinned children are presented with two dolls – one dark-colored and one light-colored. They are asked things like “which is the good/pretty/nice doll?” and “which is the bad/ugly/mean doll?” The kids, when forced to choose, often chose the dark-colored doll for the negative descriptors. Then, in the part that broke my heart, the kids were asked to pick the doll that looked like them. You could see the hesitation in some of them as they picked the doll that they had just chosen as bad/ugly/mean to represent themselves.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

“American Denial” discussed the Implicit Association Test, which uses a person’s reaction times in sorting images and words to test a their automatic, unconscious responses between such things as race and positive/negative emotions. The results can be kind of shocking.

People who consider themselves to be completely open-minded can still show an implicit bias against a particular group of people, buried in the circuitry of their brains.

It’s very uncomfortable to think about. But denying that the bias exists does not help it go away.

The challenge is – how can people be encouraged to take a hard look at the way their brains react, without shutting the people down because they feel like they are being accused of racism?

One woman at the film discussion highlighted this point by asking whether her childhood preference for a blonde Barbie doll over a dark-colored Barbie doll would classify her as a racist.

The Implicit Association Test FAQs notes a positive point in which I think there is hope. Implicit associations can be unlearned. Research suggests that being exposed to people who counter the biases in your brain will erase those biases.

This highlighted something for me, which one of the Latino participants in the film discussion mentioned – making an effort to actively participate in different social groups. It’s a lot harder to hold a negative bias against a group of people when you are friends with a member of that group.

This idea of erasing biases by associating with a variety of people, and how biases can affect society, was brought to the forefront of my mind by a meeting I attended immediately before watching “American Denial.” It was a meeting of the Community Connections group, populated by many of the movers and shakers in the community. The attendees were vastly white. It made me start wondering about the implicit associations held by those in the room . . .


Now, I begin my linkstravaganza, in an attempt to exorcise all the thoughts that are pinging around in my head.

Here is the page about “American Denial” – what the film is about and when you can see it, with a discussion guide included.

Here is the link to take an Implicit Association Test yourself. There are other tests available beyond black/white preference.

Here is a link to a Washington Post article that does a good job of explaining the context of the test, from when it hit the news in 2005.

Here is a link to an interview with comedian Chris Rock, which I thought of when someone in “American Denial” mentioned that “the Negro problem” is not a problem with black people, but with white people. Chris Rock was also mentioned in the post-film discussion last night. To quote the part of the above-linked interview that struck me:

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. … So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

Here’s a link to a kind of game, “Parable of the Polygons,” in which triangles and squares are use to illustrate how segregated neighborhoods happen.

Here’s a discussion of how America’s housing policies have helped to keep minority families in poverty. I was introduced to this concept in graduate school. It blew my mind.

Here is an analogy comparing white privilege to American transportation infrastructure, which really stuck in the minds of several people with whom I’d shared it.

A mention in “American Denial” about how black men being portrayed as thugs, being constantly held in suspicion, can contribute to them embracing that stereotype made me think of this Humans of New York post. I just love the whole saga of HONY’s chance encounter with young Vidal, and where it has led (most recently to the White House).

Here is a description of a little taste I got of what it feels like to be a racial minority, when I traveled to South Africa.

Here is a (rather too academic) processing of a racially-charged incident I once faced as a community college instructor.

Something I will never forget: a mixed-race friend from junior high loudly questioning how he was supposed to respond to a standardized test that required at its start a single fill-in-the-bubble response for race. What was he supposed to choose – black or white? How could he choose? And the later knowledge that bothered me – that when members of groups stereotyped as “inferior” (blacks, women) think about their category prior to a test, those thoughts can cause a person’s test scores to tank. I could recall filling in demographic data at the start of so many tests!

Once again, thank you to the Midwest Theater for hosting Community Cinema!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Suemommy permalink
    February 7, 2015 7:03 am

    A lot to think about here…..My husband and I just watched a movie I found at the dollar store last week – Simple Justice- which came out in 1992. It was about the early life and career of Justice Thurgood Marshall, and highlighted the struggle with the Supreme Court Ruling on Brown v. Board of Education Of Topeka KS in 1954. The movie contained a scene of children picking the “good” or “bad” dolls. It made me think of my own childhood in white suburbia in the 1950’s. I had no racial awareness that I can remember because we had no tv and no people of color in our area, but my mother told me of how embarrassed she was while riding on the bus downtown with 2 or 3 year-old me when I loudly said, Oh, Mommy, look at that man- his skin is ALL DIRTY! Some young people I know today are at the opposite side of the spectrum. They don’t even mention race in the description of new friends. They are the hope for the future.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      February 7, 2015 2:31 pm

      Good commentary on your experience! I do think that exposure to different people helps a lot with eliminating prejudice. It’s one of the reasons I’m so gung-ho on travel and study abroad. It’s interesting – I took that black/white association test twice, once in 2005, and once this week, and both times my results were “no particular preference.” Yet, I’ve not been around black people all that much, and I can remember feeling very nervous when I started teaching my community college class because there were several black students, and I wasn’t sure how to relate to them. I still recall one of the students. He had a very “gangster” persona, and did not do all that well in class, until we hit a unit using the microscope. He was very good at figuring out how to use it, and could teach other students. I suddenly had this dual-future image of this student – one path, a molecular biologist in a lab coat, the other path, jail and an early death. It haunts me still.

  2. February 7, 2015 1:04 pm

    Really good article, Katie. I will be busy tomorrow following all your posted links!

  3. Katie Bradshaw permalink*
    February 7, 2015 4:53 pm

    I remembered another topic I forgot to include in the original post – the need people have to classify the world, to discriminate “us” from “them,” which often in human history has meant safety and survival. I believe humans are, by nature, “tribal.” I think modern sports teams are a healthy way of expressing our tribal nature.

    The after-film discussion also ventured into ego, and how some people seem to need to feel superior to others. It made me think of a book I just finished reading – “Working” by Studs Terkel. In it, he interviewed dozens of people about their jobs. A common theme that arose was identity and social class. Some interviewees spoke of job titles providing a sense of superiority (or inferiority). Others mentioned race.

  4. February 7, 2015 6:06 pm

    Reblogged this on .

  5. Katie Bradshaw permalink*
    February 10, 2015 7:38 am

    Another related article – the idea of taking an identity as “hapa” for mixed-race people: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/12/15/370416571/half-asian-half-white-no-hapa

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