How Prejudice and Bias works

One of the things that always crops up in vast discussions of racism, sexism, or prejudice of most kinds is the argument that businesses would never engage in biased, bigoted actions because it would be bad for the profit margin. The recent flare up in the Geico Caveman post sparked my thinking on this, but it’s found in many areas, including in the debate surrounding Gender Bias in SF fiction markets. Magazine editors would never be biased against women because they want to sell to women says Doug Cohen. The problem with this stance, in all its forms, is that it’s short-sighted and based on an ignorance of how prejudice, bias, and bigotry work in America.Privileged people often don’t understand how prejudice works because (surprise!) they don’t experience it. Yet privileged people are usually the first to step forward and proclaim that something isn’t racist, sexist, etc. As we’ve already covered here, only those to whom the prejudice is happening can rightfully declare the prejudice to be over. They’re usually the only ones who fully understand how it works as well. Add to that, most folks who claim that “No Business Would Ever” aren’t actually in a position to know.

So let me try and school some folks on how racism/sexism/prejudice works. First of all, there’s less overt bigotry in American business than there used to be. Not very many signs that say “No Niggers or Mexicans” or Colored fountains. (Not to say that these things don’t exist at all. They do, just not as much.) However, that does not mean that racism is over. There are still plenty of companies that have discriminatory hiring and promoting practices. The glass ceiling hasn’t disappeared. To say that this doesn’t filter down to their marketing practices is to live in ignorance. Just looking at the commercials on network TV, how many feature white people only? How many feature just token people of color? When is the last time that you saw a commercial that featured all people of color that wasn’t on a specialized network (CW, BET, etc.) or during a “black show”? Some may argue that companies would be shooting themselves in the foot by being racist, and yet they advertise non-race specific products without nary a whiff of non-white people on the screen. What those companies understand that many consumers don’t is that this works. They can employ this subtle racism, wherein they cater to the privileged and ignore the not-privileged, and not suffer financially for it. People of color will still buy the products.

Why? There are lots of reasons. The main one being that many people of color just don’t notice. After all, our culture is a white one. It is centered around the most privileged in our society, the white male. It’s ingrained into us from childhood that whiteness is normal and maleness is better. So why should we question that there are no brown people on the TV? After all, we are inconsequential.

Those of us who do notice these things have little recourse. Because every time we dare to speak about it in public, there are plenty of people around to tell us that we’re being stupid, or oversensitive, or playing the race card, or seeing racism where it doesn’t exist. All of this from people who’ve most likely never had to consider if something is racist or not. They don’t see it, therefore, it doesn’t exist.

Which is the next component: the training of white people who, while not malicious or overtly prejudiced themselves, aren’t taught to notice their own privilege or to notice prejudice when it doesn’t present itself at Hitlerian levels. This training is mostly taken up by the media, who hold up the pillars of privilege while giving all consumers the tools to ignore the effects of such. Like the Geico commercials that poke fun at people who are “too sensitive” to legitimate grievances. Or 24 hour news channels whose anchors can’t say the names Sharpton or Jackson without making a face or spitting to the side. Or even popular entertainment, which is the biggest culprit. Sitcoms set in NYC with nary a brown face, even in the background. Or shows where any brown people are there to uplift the white protagonist or are just a step above minstrel shows. Grown women portrayed as large children, over-emotional harridans, meddling mothers, or sexless career drones. Not every show on TV is like this. Not every network engages in this base stupidity. But if I were to take a count right now, this crap would be in a comfortable majority.

It seems like there aren’t too many network execs that worry about “shooting themselves in the foot” when it comes to green lighting a show with no people of color whatsoever. Sure, they want lots of viewers so they can sell advertising slots. But which demographic do advertisers care about? Males. White. 18 – 40 years old. If a show skews too female (and it’s not on Lifetime) or, god forbid, too black (if it’s not on the CW or BET), how long will it last?

This applies to other corners of the media as well. Radio, music, book publishing, and magazines. In the gender bias discussion, I acknowledged that the bias most people were aware of was probably unconscious. After all, most people are not aware of their own biases. Particularly white men. They don’t need to be aware of biases because they aren’t affected by them. But even if Shawna McCarthy or Gordon van Gelder were consciously biased and have made editorial decisions based on a desire to draw more male readers without regard to female readers, (or readers of color of either gender) what would the results be? For decades the magazines and, to some extent, the big publishing houses, have catered to the white, male fan and it’s earned them a lot of money. Why should they change?

The only reason to change is because something changes in the consumer base. For magazines, the readership is changing. There are more women interested in reading SF than there were 20 years ago. There are more women writing. There are more men with wider interests than the narrow offerings of Golden Age SF. There are more people of color consuming spec fic. That’s when you start to see some outrage, some discussion, some outing of biases, unconscious or not, and calls for change. That doesn’t mean the magazines change right away. After all, they have done well so far. What the readers are starting to point out is that change has to happen, or they will go somewhere else.

Even with all this you still get people who claim there could not possibly be this problem. Why? Not only because they can’t see beyond their own prejudice but because they think things are fine the way they are. They don’t want to change. They are happy and comfortable. It doesn’t matter if other people are or not.

Lucky for the genre, those people are about to be squished like little bugs under the collective heel of enlightened people.

This is what needs to happen on a massive scale for things to change on a wider front. It won’t be until a vocal majority of people decry racism in all its forms that something will be done about it. We’ve been lulled into a false belief that, because of the Civil Rights Movement, there’s nothing more to do. We’ve been told that it’s all okay because we have BET and businesses would be stupid to continue with racist practices. Meanwhile, executives laugh all the way to the bank, profiting off ignorance and apathy.

Racism, sexism, bias, prejudice, and bigotry work when people in power are smart about the implementation. As long as it’s subtle, quiet, and only truly discussed amongst people who are secure in their power, everyone else is left to either suffer from it or argue about when and where it actually exists. For me, the discussion about whether prejudice exists is over. I know it, I see it, I experience it. The discussion isn’t even about in what way it exists. For me it’s about how we can eliminate it.

Which level of the discussion are you having?