In Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, Touré, a black man, writes:
If, on a scorching day in July, you just happened to have a taste for watermelon to quench your burning tongue, and you happened to be in a room full of Black people, you would order and eat it without concern. But if, on that same sizzling summer day, you just happened to be in a room full of white people–in a restaurant where you were the only Black or one of two or three Blacks scattered throughout the dining room–would you still order that watermelon you desire? Or would you not order it because you don’t want to fulfill some stereotype? What about fried chicken…Would you be comfortable to eat that in front of whites you don’t know? Questlove, for one, told me he is not. “I’ll be the first to order fish instead of chicken,” he said. “If I’m on the Acela train, no, I’m not bringing no fired chicken on the train. I’ll eat fish. I don’t know why I still think that but it’s just like that. I hate to say this, but no, I will not eat fried chicken in front of white people.” He’s not alone. Reverend Jackson said, “Eating watermelon in public? We’re not that free.”
If you’re white, like I am, and you doubt what Jackson’s statement implies about the continuing presence and social power of racial stereotypes in your mind, you’re probably not being honest with yourself. The act of stereotyping is hard wired into our thinking, and these particular images of blackness are deeply embedded in our national culture.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to the two modes of thinking that occur in our minds as two systems. System 1, which dominates our actions, is quick, automatic, and effortless; System 2 involves the willful application of our minds to mental tasks, and it requires concentration. “Stereotyping is a bad word in our culture,” Kahneman writes (p. 168), “but in my usage it is neutral. One of the basic characteristics of System 1 is that it represents categories as norms and prototypical exemplars.”
The norms and examples Touré evokes when he asks his interviewees about eating watermelon in public are tied to deeply rooted American ideas about blackness, most of which have nothing to do with food. As Kahneman (p. 52) explains,
Psychologists think of ideas as nodes in a vast network, called associative memory, in which each idea is linked to many others…In the current view of associative memory, a great deal happens at once. An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves.
Those associations subconsciously shape our behavior through priming. More from Kahneman (p. 53) on that:
You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware. In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York Univerisity–most aged eighteen to twenty-two–to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, “finds he it yellow instantly”). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed their task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. Their short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.
The “Florida effect” involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, though the word old is never mentioned; second, these thoughts prime a behavior, walking slowly, which is associated with old age. All this happens without any awareness. When they were questioned afterward, none of the students reported noticing that the words had a common theme, and they all insisted that nothing they did after the first experiment could have been influenced by the words they had encountered. The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless.
Substitute black for old in that example and you can see how these American tropes about blackness keep shaping our behavior, even when we consciously recognize them as absurd and pernicious. To eat watermelon in public is to prime a network of ideas about blackness, some of which are derogatory and demeaning. Without any intent on either end of the exchange, priming those ideas shapes the observers’ behavior in ways that can be hurtful or damaging.
After Jackson told Touré “We’re not that free,” he added, “‘Cause the stereotype was that deep. We’re still overcoming the burden of a four-hundred-year journey and the beneficiaries of that journey must honor the integrity of that journey.” Psychology shows us one mechanism by which that historical burden keeps pressing on the present, even after a black man has ascended to the White House.
[Postscript: It figures that the day I write about the “Florida effect” is the day a flap erupts in the blogosphere over a recently study that could not replicate Bargh’s results and suggested an interesting wrinkle involving priming of the experimenters. Via Twitter, I asked a couple of colleagues who know the psychology literature much better than I do about the flap. Based on other research, both said they still believe the priming effect is real, but they thought the Bargh study had probably overstated the magnitude of the effect. That new information doesn’t change the core belief on which my post was based–that priming is real–so I’m leaving it alone.]