Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

So let’s talk about the fundamental attribution error. This is a psychological bias we all have, which is to assume that our own behaviors are the result of outside pressure and other people’s behaviors are the result of inherent traits. Some guy cuts you off on the highway because he’s a jerk. You cut someone off on the highway, but you’re usually a good driver and you just forgot to check your mirrors. Basically, we think what we do is no reflection on us, but what other people do belies their core selves.

If someone else gets up and starts saying racist things, it’s obvious. If I as a white person say something racist, though, it’s a mistake, or an exception warranted in the moment. If I as a man think I know better than a woman, it’s really just because I know more about the subject in question, not an assumption I made based on gender. Of course, I would happily assume the opposite in both cases if I saw that behavior in someone else.

The fundamental attribution error leads us to conclude that our experience of our behavior is the most accurate one, while leaving us blind to the way that behavior is perceived. It leads us to think our behavior is all about outside factors, which leads us to believe it’s not our responsibility to change it.

Which is the opposite of helpful, because, and this is the thing Americans/men/white people often miss about –isms, it’s the behavior that matters. The things you do, regardless of whether you attribute them to your fundamental traits or the whims of a bad day, are part of a trend that affects the people around you. I don’t go through life thinking “I’m going to assume I have a right to some woman’s attention today,” or “I’m going to be afraid of a black person today.” But if I am a police officer, and I look at someone with more suspicion because he is black, my behavior is what matters. If I am a man and I interrupt a woman to explain how I know better, it is my behavior that matters.

We want to be able to say “I am not a _____,” because we don’t understand that when people talk about racism, sexism, xenophobia, and so on being societal problems, they are talking about how people experience it from the outside. And we respond by arguing that it looks different on the inside.

No shit it looks different on the inside. Everything does. We know this, it’s science, move on please.

So instead of arguing point of view, the helpful thing to do is to listen to other people, trust that their bad experiences are real experiences, and work to change our contributions those experiences. Instead of being stuck on how so many things look different to us, let’s just pitch in and fix the damn things.


Image Credit: Allen Lai

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