Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Real World Bias and Smart Guy

A while ago, Sociological Images posted this video (CHECK IT OUT BEFORE READING ON):



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Done? Well, I didn’t see it the first time I watched the video, and then when I watched it normally I was stunned to see a guy in such a stupid costume walk across the frame. How could I have missed that? SI uses the selective attention exercise as an example of privilege in society (racism, sexism, etc.). I think they’re onto something, and I think it’s comparable to a joke about racism in the Smart Guy episode “Get a Job”.

The episode’s plot has the African-American Yvette getting a job at a clothing store run by a racist white woman who has Yvette’s white friend/coworker follow black customers around. When Yvette finds out about this, she tries to prove to her boss that it’s a bad thing to do (start-1:47 here). She hides a couple cameras in the store to film two of her friends—one black (Moe), one white (Mackie)—as they go around the store. The film shows the manager snooping behind Moe, innocently browsing, while Mackie very blatantly steals stuff right behind her. The scene is a joke, as it’s impossible on the face of it for the manager to be that blind to what’s going on in the middle of the room, and yet this holds similarities to the gorilla video.

If I were told to just watch the gorilla video and not closely watch the players in white, I would just find the video bizarre. If the video were set up with a character closely watching the players in white and so focused on them that they miss the gorilla, I might find it humorous (especially with a laugh track). When it comes right down to it, the Smart Guy joke is not that different from the real ‘gorilla’ mental exercise. While Smart Guy was parodying racist people, I think they managed to do a pretty good depiction of how it really works.

The ‘gorilla’ video works by having two sets of people: white shirts and black shirts. The person studying the video is focusing exclusively on the white shirts and ignoring the black shirts. While the gorilla is not an obvious figure of a human wearing clothes, it is black-colored on its torso and so it gets mentally tagged as a black shirt or “black-colored thing I’m ignoring”. The Smart Guy depiction of racism works about the same way, just with white shirts, black shirts, and the gorilla respectively exchanged for black people, white people, and a white person doing something suspicious.

SI paraphrases Rachel at the blog The Feminist Agenda, who suggests “the way to deal with privilege-blindness is not to dismiss the person as hateful and willfully ignorant (not yet, anyway), but to point out the gorilla in the room. Gently point them in the right direction and alert them to the possibilities. Because once you see the gorilla in the room, you can't not see it anymore. Your worldview has changed, for better or for worse, and your perception of things will reflect this change.” In Smart Guy, they show the opposite perspective: “In this world, there’s also going to be people that take logic and facts and twist them to their own point of view,” says Floyd, and Yvette ends up having to get her fired.

I think both views are accurate observations. Some people are so utterly entrenched in bias that they just can’t see reason. On the other hand, some people have just been following instructions without seeing the full picture and can come to see it if they want to see it, to go with the ‘gorilla’ metaphor. In any case, I think the comparison of clips is interesting.

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