THE BLOG

Can 'Hollywood' Transform the Way We Understand Race?

04/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Children ages eight to 18 spend more than seven hours a day with entertainment media, according to national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation released last month.

The consumption of entertainment media includes listening to music, playing video games, watching TV and social networking on sites like Facebook.

Adults of course likely spend far less time consuming entertainment media, but still in enough quantities that what we see on television and in the movies influences our understanding of society.

For people of color and indigenous people, the way Hollywood presents life is often far different from what we know as reality. I'm not referring to how Jack Bauer saves the country every season on "24" or the uber-interesting lives of the women on Desperate Housewives. It's the world these fictional stories take place in has to somewhat mimic society as we know it.

Television shows can influence the way that viewers understand race and race relations. And a recent study has shown that nonverbal behavior displayed on shows can actually transmit racial biases.

"The Subtle Transmission of Race Bias via Televised Nonverbal Behavior," a report by Max Weisbuch, Kristin Pauker and Nalini Ambady, details the findings of four studies showing that "biased facial expressions and body language may resist conscious identification and thus produce a hidden social influence."

Characters on 11 popular television shows exhibited more negative nonverbal behavior toward black than toward status-matched white characters. Critically, exposure to pro-white (versus pro-black) nonverbal bias increased viewers' bias even though patterns of nonverbal behavior could not be consciously reported. These findings suggest that hidden patterns of televised nonverbal behavior influence bias among viewers.

So while far too many people think that race discrimination is something of the past -- a notion seemingly supported by the decline of overt aggression or harm against someone because of their race, gender or sexuality -- our social structures today still include structural and institutional racism that perpetuates inequalities and an uneven playing field of opportunity.

A critical piece of this structural puzzle is "unconscious bias" or "implicit bias" -- a concept that explains why discrimination persists, even though research clearly shows that people oppose discrimination.

"While old-fashioned bigotry still exists, when we limit our definition of discrimination in this way, we hamper our journey as a nation towards equality," offers the American Values Institute on their website. "Implicit Bias offers the idea that discrimination and bias are social, rather than individual issues, and that we can thus all participate in promoting equality. Most importantly, Implicit Bias removes a serious stigma about acknowledging racial bias by portraying it as an unconscious decision that we all engage in. Bias is not a black vs. white issue, it's a human issue."

The American Values Institute - founded by Kirwan Institute executive director john powell - and the Equal Justice Society have been researching the effects of unconscious racial bias on decision making and developing strategies to support decision-making based on consciously held American values rather than on racial anxiety and stereotypes.

Understanding implicit bias is critical to overcoming our society's racial contradictions. It explains how people can genuinely believe in equality, while simultaneously engaging in behavior that favors dominant groups. The doctors who are giving different treatment to white and black patients with similar symptoms are not hate-filled bigots -- they are likely people fully intending to do their best by all patients regardless of race. Unbeknownst to them, their implicit associations about black patients shade their evaluations of symptoms.

In September 2009, the Equal Justice Society organized a panel in Hollywood with the Writers Guild of America, West, the Screen Actors Guild, American Values Institute, and the Kirwan Institute to provide writers and other entertainment industry types with a thorough background on Implicit Bias, offering insights challenging and inspiring new ideas for developing and producing programming that reflects the true diversity of our rapidly changing society.

The panelists explored how the brain processes information and how the need for quick decision often leads to faulty conclusions. Political ads from the 2008 presidential campaign were used as examples of how media can "prime" viewers to activate stereotypes and similarly, deactivate the impact of negative unconscious stereotypes. A number of ads showed candidate Barack Obama as a menacing Black man -- purposefully done to make voters afraid of him.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela tells of getting on a plane in Africa after his release from 28 years of imprisonment. The pilot of the plane was a Black African. This frightened Mandela. When he examined his fears, he realized that he had internalized negative stereotypes of Black incompetence. Many of us have internalized negative stereotypes of women, lesbians and gay men, the disabled, older people, and people of color. These fears operate in our unconscious.

At the Transforming Race Conference, American Values Institute executive director Alexis McGill Johnson and other panelists will bring together perspectives and research from pollsters, neuroscientists, sociologists and filmmakers of both the fictional and documentary genres to provide new ways to engage popular culture and develop content to educate audiences about race and race issues.

We believe "Hollywood" can indeed transform the way we understand race.

The more difficult question is how can we transform Hollywood.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.