This test says I’m a racist — but a moderate one, let me add!


Y’all know I’m a sucker for a written test, even if, as I take it, I can hear the voice of Admiral Ackbar crying, “It’s a trap!”

Which was sort of the case with this one as it proceeded. Even as I thought I could see the trap taking shape and closing on me, hubris kept me going, hoping I’d ace it anyway.

I didn’t.

I was attracted to the test by this item on the radio this morning. It was a story about all the Starbucks stores that are closed for racial-sensitivity training as I type this. Then came the hook:

How to evaluate your own bias:

The Takeaway invites you to participate in an assessment of your own implicit biases. Click here to access Harvard University’s “Project Implicit.” If this is the first time you’re attempting the test, you’ll have to continue as a guest. Select your country and language, then press “GO!” At the bottom of the next page, click “I wish to proceed.” Then select “Race IAT” — or other implicit association test of your choice — from the following page, and continue to follow the prompts from there to take the test. It should last about 10 minutes.

I went for it, of course. The result? It said “Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans.

Which kinda ticked me off, even though I saw it coming. What caused this conclusion of my racism?

I’ll tell you, but I ask you to go take the test before reading my explanation. No, really, I mean it now! Go take it before you read past this…


The test starts off by lulling you. It asks you questions you’d have to be a major, racist jerk — and a particularly dumb one at that — to answer “wrongly.” Questions like whether you prefer white people to black people, and to what degree.

Then there’s another batch of obvious-pitfall questions, about whether you think poor people are that way because they’re lazy and shiftless.

Then comes the trick part. From the beginning, I’m screwed because you’re supposed to respond as quickly as you can. That always messes me up. I like being rushed even less than other people do; in fact it’s a major personal peeve. My hand/eye coordination is about as quick as that of the average giant sloth, and I know it, and I get rattled.

But I can, eventually, sorta kinda get into the rhythm of the thing.

Anyway, in this part of the test, you’re supposed to, as quickly as possible, either hit the e key with your left hand or the i key with your right.

And here’s where it gets REALLY tricky: You’re not supposed to respond according to what you think, but according to how you have been told in advance to respond. And the way you have been told to respond is in a completed irrational, arbitrary manner.

In this portion of the test, the e and the i correspond to “good” and “bad” (or was it the other way around?). Onto your screen will flash two kinds of input — one of a set of photos of faces, and the other and set of words that are obviously expressing either positive associations (such as “happy”) or negative ones (such as “dirty”).

In the first half of this portion, you are instructed to click one of the letters for both black faces and positive words, and the other letter for white faces and negative words. This was kind of silly and irrational, and I hit the wrong key a couple of times, but I muddled through, and thought I was getting a little faster toward the end.

Then, once you’re warmed up, it reverses on you. You are instructed to hit one key for both black faces and negative words, and the other for white faces and positive words. This was both stupid and offensive, but I followed the instructions, and started doing it a bit faster as I went.

And as I did so, I suspected I was getting myself in trouble by getting better at following the instructions.

Sure enough, I was labeled moderately racist for getting a little faster in that last part — because, in the assumptions of the test creators, supposedly it was easier for my brain to associate the positive words with white faces, and negative ones with black ones. And that, they say, is why I did it more quickly.

Obviously, I believe that if it had been the other way around, with white folks associated with good words first, and bad words second, I would still have been faster on the last part. And then I would have been seen as having a moderate preference for black people, which I think would also have been kind of a bogus result.

But I don’t know that. And I kind of doubt that it would be valid to take it again. So I’ll just share with you what it said about me. The result is what it is…

36 thoughts on “This test says I’m a racist — but a moderate one, let me add!

  1. JesseS

    I’ve always been erked by it. You can take the same IAT and get different results each time. It annoys me even more that there are testing outfits out there who’ll test employees as a CYA measure. It’s like the fire marshal checking to see if a building if fit to live in with a blood sugar test …or a divining rod. It’s always stunk of hucksterism.

    You wanna test me for implicit bias? Fine. Throw me in a MRI and see if my amygdala and insula light up like a Christmas tree. At least that looks like science.

    With the Harvard test, I can re-shuffle the stimulus in the last half of the test and get whatever results I want to prove that you have bias against whoever I want. It’s a muscle memory test that’s about as hard “science” as the Stanford Prison Experiment. I can’t wait for all of that stuff to get thrown on the 20th century rubbish bin and take its place beside phrenology busts and love-o-meters.

    1. Mark Stewart

      I started to take it and thought the same was happening. I hit eject. Totally seemed like junk science.

  2. Karen Pearson

    I didn’t see anything to imply that you or I was/is a racist. I, too, have a moderate preference for white over black, but then, I’m white. To expect a people to prefer another race, faith or gender over their own suggests to me that people are expected to have very low self esteem indeed. I see bigotry coming in only when people think their preference should be the universal preference or the (necessarily) right preference. I prefer yellow over puce. Does that make me a color bigot?

    1. Mr. Smith

      “I, too, have a moderate preference for white over black, but then, I’m white.”

      Um-hmm. That may be what we generally think of as “the norm,” but does that make it right? And if we DO consider it right, isn’t that sort of an admission that it’s sort of … universal? Seems to me, whether they’re called “preferences” or “biases,” what’s important is that we be aware of them and work against them, not accept them as just part of the way things are naturally supposed to be.

      1. Bob Amundson

        Agreed; being aware of our biases, which we all have, is the key. A short list of biases: implicit, negative, historical, and confirmation.

  3. Norm Ivey

    I have a “slight automatic preference for African Americans over European Americans.”

    If there is any validity to this–I’d want to read a more thorough explanation of the methodology before passing judgement one way or the other–I think it is in great deal a result of my career and my bride. If I had taken this same test early in my career, I fear the results would have been much different. I know my perceptions have changed over the years. It’s especially evident when I get around some of my family. I recognize my old attitudes in them and shudder.

    Being around children in my classes and getting to know their parents, I’ve come to realize that they have faced hurdles I have never had to clear. And my bride ALWAYS calls me out when I think lazily and speak ignorantly. She’s taught me empathy.

  4. Harry Harris

    I think it is important to distinguish between prejudice, preferences, and racism. I have prejudices and preferences with regard to race. Racism is acting on those prejudices that imposes one’s race on another, just as Karen says. Giving preference or privilege or making broad value judgments based on race is racist.

  5. Karen Pearson

    I’m aware of my own bias and take it into account when dealing with someone “not like me.” But personal preference is a different than prejudice. I think we are all prefer our own race,our own politcal group, our own church. That’s built into us. Of course, we need to be aware of it. I think that’s part of the problem with our politics right now; were letting our “clan” (no, not KKK) bias rule our rationality. When it come to our interactions to others we need to be aware of our biases, and aware of theirs. If we aren’t aware, we tend to become easily put off by the other. But we can overcome these biases and become friends. This friendship happens on a 1 to 1 basis, and doesn’t blot out our instinct to prefer our own group over others.

  6. Brad Warthen

    If it’s “built into us” to “prefer our own race,our own politcal group, our own church,” then I am NOT aware of it, and maybe THATS my problem.

    What does “preference” mean? Prefer white people HOW? Esthetically? Sexually? Socially? I don’t socialize much, anyway. For employment? If so, for what position, and what are the respective qualifications of the applicants? (And no, I don’t consider skin color to be a qualification, whatever this test says.)

    Prefer HOW?

    I don’t have a “political group,” and constantly rail against people tribalizing themselves that way.

    Of COURSE I prefer my church, because that was a choice. Like preferring Coke to Pepsi, although on a higher plane, one hopes…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, them Pepsis got no reason to live… 🙂

        Seriously, I doubt that I’d be able to tell in a blind taste test. Of course, I seldom drink a cola any more.

        I used to SWEAR there was a difference, but could I really tell?

        I used to believe that we HAD TO buy Heinz ketchup, that this was a huge deal. For the last 30 years at least we’ve been buying store house brands, and when I occasionally get some Heinz (my Mom buys it), I can’t tell any difference…

            1. Norm Ivey

              They exploit our need to belong.

              I’m watchin’ my tv and a man comes on and to tell me how white my shirts can be, but he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author


                Years ago, I created a CD full of cover versions of songs, and put the Otis Redding version and the Devo version of that song back-to-back.

                One of the most interesting contrasts in approaches I’ve ever put together on a mix “tape.”

                Otis showed how much soul could be packed into that song written by those English white boys. Devo showed how it sounded with no soul whatsoever, a machine’s lament.

                The Stones’ original fits somewhere between the two, on the soul-o-meter…

                1. Norm Ivey

                  Drifting from the topic, but I can’t resist…

                  Other covers better than the hit version:

                  Hotel California covered by Tangerine Dream
                  Hurt covered by Johnny Cash
                  I Walk the Line covered by Halsey
                  Sweet Child of Mine covered by Postmodern Jukebox (Miche Braden vocal)
                  Pinball Wizard to the melody of Folsom Prison Blues covered by Puddles Pity Party

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Good sounds, Norm… although suggesting any cover of “I Walk the Line” is “better than the hit” comes awfully close to heresy.

                    Of course, Johnny’s version of “Hurt” is better than the original. Johnny improved everything.

                    I love Puddles, and I had not heard that one!

                    I feel I need to correct myself for giving a wrong impression. I didn’t say Otis’ version was “better” than the original. It just had a lot more soul. Both are awesome….

                    How much soul do you expect those white English boys to have?

                    Here’s something funny — Mick Jagger is making news for making “Dad comments” on his son’s Instagram account. Kind of hard to square that with the Jagger in the Ed Sullivan video.

                    But then Otis might have made Dad jokes, too, had he lived long enough…

                2. Bob Amundson

                  Thanks Norm for sending me off on an interesting music journey. I like the very new Weezer cover of Africa, the Lemonheads and Mrs. Robinson, and Bad Company by Five Finger Death Punch.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    I’ve always enjoyed the Lemonhead version of Mrs. Robinson. They add a fun dimension.

                    But I tried to go listen to the Weezer version of Africa, and… it just sounded like the original. They didn’t seem to add anything…

                    In face, maybe it IS the original. Maybe it’s a bad link

                3. Norm Ivey

                  I understood what you meant. And when I say “better” I really mean “an interesting twist on the original.”

                  Heresy aside, I really like Halsey’s haunting “I Walk the Line.” It really changes the mood of the song…maybe it’s one of those major vs. minor chord things? I don’t know what it is. I just know I like it.

                  Pink! has a strong version of Me and Bobby McGee. It’s true to Joplin’s version (which is in itself levels stronger than Kristofferson’s original), yet still different enough to feel fresh.

                4. Norm Ivey

                  There are plenty of others that fit that bill.

                  RESPECT by Aretha Franklin is just worlds above Otis Redding’s original version. the message is different being when sung by a man.
                  The Eagles’ version of Take It Easy is far better than Jackson Bowne’s original.
                  The original Girls Just Want to Have Fun was a misogynist song by some guy. Again, it’s different when sung by a man.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Google hardwired bias or evolutionary psychology. Read “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” published in 2011 by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate Daniel Kahneman (or read the Wikipedia summary).

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Yeah, I really don’t do that first kind. It’s what made me bad at sports. My brain always wants me to slow down and analyze whether to throw the ball to first or second (get the leading runner or the sure out?), consider the alternatives and likely consequences. I resist instinctive responses. That’s why timed tests, especially ones meant to MEASURE instinctive responses, stress me out. I don’t like being rushed…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      By the way, when I said this:

      If it’s “built into us” to “prefer our own race,our own politcal group, our own church,” then I am NOT aware of it, and maybe THATS my problem….

      I didn’t intend to deny the evolutionary tendency “built in” to all of us. Of course that is there, the atavistic sense of the strange as potentially threatening….

      What I meant is that, at this point in my life, being an adult with all kinds of experiences with all kinds of people, I’m not able to spot such preference in myself.

      But I’ve been thinking further about that word, “preference.”

      And I remember when I was a kid and first developing a taste for pop music — I had zero interest in the Supremes, for instance, and I have a distinct sense of thinking that the Supremes were not for ME, and in retrospect I think I meant for a little white boy like me. (I don’t think I was into Smokey Robinson or Little Anthony and the Imperials, either, but I particularly remembering tuning out the Supremes.) I’m not SURE it was race. Maybe it was their evening gowns, or that they were women, or the fact that they weren’t holding guitars. I just know I looked at them and thought THAT is entertainment for people in some category other than the ME category. And that memory is, for me, the closest thing I can remember to having an attitude that was probably, on some level, racist.

      Now, I hear the Supremes and they’re so awesome that I can’t believe I didn’t like them immediately. But I was hugely into TV at the time, and the visuals mattered, and they weren’t a bunch of white guys (preferably with British accents) with long hair and guitars, so I immediately decided that was not for me…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Let me hasten to add that I loved the Mills Brothers at around the same time. Of course, I never remember SEEING them, but I used to listen to an LP of their greatest hits that my parents had, over and over.

        In fact, I think that was mostly when we still lived in Ecuador and didn’t have a TV. So that was ALL about the glorious sound…

        I also had a sense that Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams and those other cats adults listened to weren’t “for me” either.

        But I did like Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and other acts that weren’t boys with guitars, so I wasn’t completely closed-minded. I loved samba music from the time my Dad brought some records home after attending a conference in Rio. So it’s a little hard for me to figure out EXACTLY what it was I didn’t like about the Supremes, or any of those guitarless vocal groups…

  7. Norm Ivey

    I’ve read somewhere that classification of others is an evolutionary development. Our ancestors needed to be able to quickly identify a stranger or new organism as friend or foe. Reflecting on a recent conversation we’ve had here, some snakes are venomous, so all snakes incite an intense aversion response. It works the same way with people. So in that sense, bias is built in. What has happened is that we have instinctively taken what was originally a survival skill and applied it to non-life-threatening situations. It’s similar to how stressful situations call up the fight-or-flight response even when neither is appropriate.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Our comments crossed; your example is one of many human behaviors best explained by evolutionary psychology.

      1. Mark Stewart

        I disagree. Our collective history is condemned by slavery as a binary opposition that’s difficult to overcome. Even things like “the Irish question” follow this paradigm. Let alone the Chinese, Italians, Eastern Europeans and now Central Americans mass arrivals in the US…

        I see a moralizing justification here; not some sort of evolutionary “need”. Racism isn’t a tribe thing; it’s a moral choice. That’s why people cannot admit their outlook; to them it feels that is is something that must be defended.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      The snakes thing is more logical than you think. I misidentify snakes all the time. I see snakes I think HAVE to be poisonous (based in triangular head, fat body), and I’m told I’m wrong. I do a little better when I think it’s nonpoisonous, but I don’t trust my life to that ability to discriminate.

      I don’t kill every snake I see. Not even if they’re in my yard. But if they’re in my yard and look poisonous by my very inexact knowledge, that might be it for that snake.

      Now let me tell you how rare that situation is, because I fear I’ve given a wrong impression. I’ve killed two snakes in my life. One of them was the one I told you about, back in the 80s, that I killed for the nervous lady next door.

      I’ve killed one other — and that was one I found in my yard, apparently LIVING in my yard, and that was maybe 15 years ago. I believed it was a young copperhead. When you consider that I live a block from the river and wildlife is not unusual in my yard — everything from snakes through deer — you can see that I’m not exactly trigger-happy. There was a long black snake that lived in the bushes right outside our front door for years. I’d sometimes see him right outside the window of our TV room. Another snake I trapped in a box and actually took to the zoo to get a herpetologist to ID it for me. I thought it was harmless — it was certainly tiny — but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to grow up into something dangerous. The herpetologist said it was a little brown snake, to which I responded, “Yes, I can see that.” No, he said, that’s what it’s called. So I took it home and released it.

      And the “copperhead” I killed I did my best to identify. I took it over to my neighbor who is a retired Clemson extension agent, expecting him to confirm my identification. He didn’t know, either. Not exactly reassuring.

      Anyway, my point is I’m not some serial snake killer. When I say I’d rather kill one than take chances, I’m basically just arguing the principle of the thing. It’s not something I normally do.

      I hope I never kill another one.

      Of course, you have to consider that I also hope I never SEE another one…

    3. Harry Harris

      These posts are not just well-stated, they are on sound scientific ground. The brain researchers since the late ’90s have established some key facts that support these posts.

      Our brain’s number one job is survival.
      Our brain seeks patterns, and if it doesn’t see them, it tries to create them.
      Creating patterns from first sensory inputs is a key survival strategy.

      As we develop societies and social norms, we truly need to consciously and conscientiously control the more base functions of our brains to advance as social animals. I think that means we have to recognize our prejudices and act to diminish them and their impact. That points to expansion of our tribe (inclusion). and consciously controlling our prejudice-driven tendencies. Years ago, I heard Nelson Mandela say basically that the more he learned and the more he grew, the less importance he placed on being a member of any group. Differences exist; do we let them separate us?

  8. Bob Amundson

    Thanks Norm for sending me off on an interesting music journey. I like the very new Weezer cover of Africa, the Lemonheads and Mrs. Robinson, and Bad Company by Five Finger Death Punch.

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