Declaring your anti-racist intentions may make you more racist.

It is probably not a good idea to publicly declare that you intend to be less racist, or that you are trying to be less racist. Doing so may make you less likely to change, which would result in you continuing with your racist behaviours.

In a post titled, Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them., Derek Sivers writes:

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book “Symbolic Self-Completion” (pdf article here) – and recently published results of new tests in a research article, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?”

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Whites engage in more racist acts after declaring support for Obama, study finds.

How Obama could be bad for racial equality (BPS Research Digest):

Daniel Effron and colleagues presented dozens of predominantly White undergrad students with one of two scenarios that would reveal their favouritism towards White people: one was a hiring decision, the other related to the allocation of funds to communities. Crucially, the students were asked to make their choices about the hiring or funding either before or after they had declared whether they planned to vote for Barack Obama, in what was then the upcoming Presidential election.

Students who declared their intention to vote for Obama before making the hiring/funding decisions subsequently showed more favouritism towards White people than did students who made their decisions first. A third study showed this effect was particularly apparent among more racially prejudiced students.

“Our findings raise the possibility that the opportunity to vote for an African-American for President could have reduced some voters’ concerns about appearing prejudiced, thereby ironically increasing the likelihood that they would favour Whites in subsequent decisions,” the researchers said.

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Making a difference is not about creating a heroic image.

When good intentions are valued over effective change, resources that should be used for effective change are diverted to create an image of moral goodness or greatness.

In the article, Raising the World’s I.Q., Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times suggests that a worthwhile initiative for positive change in the world is often overlooked because of its image problems:

Travelers to Africa and Asia all have their favorite forms of foreign aid to “make a difference.” One of mine is a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter.

Unfortunately, it has one appalling side effect. No, it doesn’t make you sterile, but it is just about the least sexy substance in the world. Indeed, because it’s so numbingly boring, few people pay attention to it or invest in it. (Or dare write about it!)

It’s iodized salt.

Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.

Development geeks rave about the benefits of adding iodine and other micronutrients (such as vitamin A, iron, zinc and folic acid) to diets. The Copenhagen Consensus, which brings together a panel of top global economists to find the most cost-effective solutions to the world’s problems, puts micronutrients at the top of the list of foreign aid spending priorities.

“Probably no other technology,” the World Bank said of micronutrients, “offers as large an opportunity to improve lives … at such low cost and in such a short time.”

Yet the strategy hasn’t been fully put in place, partly because micronutrients have zero glamour. There are no starlets embracing iodine. And guess which country has taken the lead in this area by sponsoring the Micronutrient Initiative? Hint: It’s earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves.

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Considering intent to evaluate morality is an ancient Western tradition.

Contemporary Western intellectuals embrace secularism as ‘modern’, and they often perceive Eastern and African cultures as ‘traditional’ cultures that are steeped in ancient religious practices.

Many Westerners even describe Japan, an arguably more technologically advanced nation, as an interesting blend of the very old with the very new. A white man told me that he visited Japan to meet the parents of his Japanese wife. He said that Japan’s technology makes Canada look like a developing country. However, he insisted that Japan’s culture is very ancient in addition to being futuristic, because ancient cultural beliefs and practices are still part of contemporary Japanese culture.

I found it odd that Western culture is rarely perceived as ancient, even though so many of our beliefs and practices can be traced back to ancient traditions. It is difficult to look at Western culture directly, when we are so accustomed to looking through Western cultural frameworks.

An example of an ancient Western cultural artifact is the Christian tradition of considering intention when judging the morality of an action. This Christian concept is institutionalized in our legal systems as mens rea. For a very recent example of factoring in intent, Clay Shirky claimed that the filtering out of LGBT books from Amazon.com was only a “perceived injustice” and an “injustice that didn’t actually occur” since the delisting was done unintentionally.*

The overemphasis on intent is so pervasive that the effects of an entity’s actions is now considered less important or even unimportant. Furthermore, a culture that trivializes the importance of effect encourages people in power to prioritize image management over correcting bad behaviour. If intent is more important than action and effect, then showing that you had good intentions absolves you from your bad behaviour and your responsibility to correct your behaviour.


Related articles:


* For the record, I was unaware of the #amazonfail twitterstorm until I read Shirky’s article, as I had Internet troubles during that time. Although he makes a good point about people’s tendency to rationalize their actions, because I wasn’t involved, I have no emotional investment in maintaining that an injustice did occur.

Why I dislike a particular white antiracist blogger

we dont need another anti-racism 101 by Mai’a at guerrilla mama medicine:

and so in my experience, folks can learn all the theory, all the right words, all of it and yet act fundamentally the same, live out the same patterns of thoughts, still hold the same fucked-up priorities. and yet spout all of the anti-racist rhetoric.

[…]

in that they are able to say things like: i realize that such and such is a function of racism and then they continue to do the same fucking thing that they just acknowledged was racist.

this happens all the time. like. all. the. time.

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