I Don’t Actually Hate Myself: Why Harvard Is Wrong About Bias

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My colleague Maia Szalavitz wrote a great piece we posted Monday on how an online test developed at Harvard can help uncover hidden biases in how you treat people. There are currently 14 of these Implicit Association Tests (IATs) purporting to measure internal biases in the way we see race, sexuality, body weight — even Presidents (current vs. former). I have been an out-of-the-closet gay writer for 15 years (here’s an early article), so I was surprised to see my result: “Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for Straight People compared to Gay People.” As Maia wrote, 48% of African Americans who take the test also show a bias against themselves.

My results might mean I’m self-hating, although I’m not exactly sure what I could do to be gayer. A tiara to work? Even more house music playing on my office computer? I got suspicious when I read my “result” again: note it’s not an actual score. The Harvard researchers don’t tell you what your actual score is; they measure you through statistical analysis — essentially, bell curves — that compare you to others. The other possible “results” are: “moderate automatic preference” (either for or against), “strong automatic preference,” and no discernible preference. The test would seem more reliable if it just gave me a score. (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

What does “automatic” mean, anyway? Before you take the test, the online instructions ask you, several times, to complete it as fast as possible. The researchers want highly reductive, split-second responses (“good,” “bad”) to images that come onto the screen. If you take longer on your response, you get a score — sorry, “result” —indicating you are more biased. But the images can be a little odd: to represent “gay,” for instance, one image is two female figures from a women’s bathroom sign standing together. Aside from being a little gross, I didn’t see it as gay. I saw it as two figures on a bathroom sign.

More broadly, the test relies on an outdated concept — one essentially Freudian in its conception — that there are huge mysterious landscapes in our brains that we can’t access directly. The Harvard researchers seem to like the word “automatic” because it sounds more scientific than the word Freud used — “unconscious” — but the basic idea is no different. As IAT critic Hart Blanton of the University of Connecticut has written, the idea of unconscious racism is a concept in pursuit of a measure, not a scientific measure that has resulted in an idea.

All of which I might be writing because I’m self-hating and angry about my “result,” right? At some point, the reasoning behind the IAT becomes unprovable: it’s unconscious, and if you disagree, that just proves you’re sad about yourself. As others have written (here’s a 2008 piece by the great science writer John Tierney), it turns out that many people’s scores on the IAT can wildly fluctuate from one moment when you take it to the next. Blanton has found that results on an IAT race-bias test can change if you merely show participants a photo of black people enjoying a picnic before they begin. (More on Time.com: Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

My own interpretation is that my IAT result shows not unconscious bias against gays but total gay identity: I so closely identify as gay that I take a little longer to make sure I say the right thing about other gays. Also, the most automatic response in humans agrees with me: I always get a little breathless when I see a cute gay guy. Also, I cry reliably during Glee, I got Gay Days into TIME magazine, and I live in Chelsea. My problem might be that I like my subculture too much, but it’s not bias against it.

More on Time.com:

The Authentic Self: How Do You Know If You’re ‘Really’ Racist or Sexist?

‘It Gets Better’: Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids

Don’t Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure