Campus & Community

Prejudice is not just black and white

7 min read
Banaji, a native of India, arrived at this work through the study of memory 20 years ago, as a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln )

Few people in post-politically-correct academia would admit that they prefer white people to black people or black people to those from the Middle East. From the classroom to the cocktail party, opinions like “men are better at math,” “Asians make the best violinists,” or “women cannot be strong corporate leaders” are unpopular.

Yet, says psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, we all carry prejudices like these. We just don’t admit to them, because in many cases, we don’t know they’re there.

Banaji, who joined the Harvard faculty this year as Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe, is interested in teasing out these unconscious – or implicit – attitudes about social group membership. Often, she says, they stand in contrast to the feelings and beliefs that we comfortably trot out in public.

After studying implicit attitudes for nearly 20 years, the past 15 of them at Yale, Banaji comes to Harvard eager to move her work beyond the laboratory and into arenas like law or medicine, where attitudes and prejudices might affect decisions daily.

“These biases may be more pervasive than we had thought,” she says. “They often sit in opposition to conscious beliefs, and if that’s the case, then I think [the work] asks, with a new urgency, what it is that we wish to do in a variety of domains.”

From memory to attitudes

Banaji, a native of India, arrived at this work through the study of memory 20 years ago, as a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University. She also holds degrees from two institutions in India: a B.A. from Nizam College and an M.S. from Osmania University, both in Hyderabad.

What others had shown about fractures in conscious and unconscious forms of memory, Banaji set out to demonstrate with attitudes and beliefs, focusing on what are commonly referred to as prejudices and stereotypes.

If implicit recollection exists separate from conscious recollection, she wondered, “is it conceivable that we might have attitudes, feelings, knowledge, thoughts, beliefs about groups of people that sit in isolation from our more consciously held attitudes and beliefs?”

Beyond ‘Who do you hate?’

Her work is often misunderstood, says Banaji, even by other academics who don’t believe that prejudice can be studied in a scientific way. “When people hear that I study prejudice, they think I ask people to report whether they like or hate somebody or some group,” she says.

In fact, she does that, but only as a first step. She then measures her subjects’ implicit attitudes to see how they bear up against admitted prejudices, or lack thereof.

At Yale, Banaji and her former adviser and collaborator Anthony Greenwald and an advisee, Brian Nosek, created a Web site in 1998 ( that introduces one tool used to study unconscious attitudes and beliefs, called the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT).

Site visitors can measure their hidden prejudices regarding race, age, and gender with a test that charts the speed with which one associates words or images. “I always say, ‘go there, but … you may not like what you learn about yourself,’” says Banaji, noting that test-takers are often disturbed to learn the extent of their subconscious prejudice.

Banaji stresses the larger social implications of the test, which is designed to educate the participants rather than to collect data. “To us, it is clear that this is the first step towards breaking the barrier, to use the data to have conversations about things that are difficult,” she says.

Not just Nazis or KKK

Growing up in southern India, with its densely layered social system, Banaji saw prejudice – more explicit than implicit – up-close. Relatively light-skinned and of a minority group, Zoroastrians, that was economically privileged, she did not feel the personal sting of discrimination. Yet it surrounded her: a friend admitted to Banaji that the friend was more marriageable than her sister was because her skin was, to Banaji, an imperceptible shade lighter.

While prejudice is far less blatant in the United States, Banaji says it is equally dangerous.

“When consciously expressed prejudices seem to be fading – although by no means extinct – it does raise the question of what other levels might it exist, and do those levels mean anything, do they predict anything?” she ponders. “Most people, but perhaps Americans in particular, worry about these sorts of disparities between consciously held values and indicators of their behavior that may not be consistent with those values.”

Banaji says that her work should not prompt any existential crises: implicit prejudice, as jarring as it may be upon discovery, is thoroughly ordinary. “It’s not just Nazi Germany and it’s not just the KKK,” she says. “It is a by-product of the ordinary ways in which we think and feel and learn. In some senses, to not show these effects is to not be able to think. It’s to not be able to perceive the world.”

Radcliffe proves a potent lure

Banaji’s appointment at Harvard is paired with one at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies; she is the first-ever Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor there, an appointment created to enable scholars to make significant academic contributions to the Institute and to their Harvard department. The Radcliffe appointment allows her to spend four semesters in her first five years as a resident fellow, free from the demands of teaching or departmental duties.

Very happy in her position at Yale, Banaji said that the resource of the Radcliffe fellowship certainly helped lure her to Harvard. Yet even more than the unfettered research time the Radcliffe appointment brings, she said, “what’s exciting is the idea of the presence of 45 scholars every year, in residence, who come from disciplines as diverse as religious studies to molecular biology, arts and literature, engineering and science.”

Banaji hopes to tap the intellectual community of Radcliffe fellows as she moves her research into the broader social context of law or medicine.

Her colleague J. Richard Hackman, Cahners-Rabb Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, chaired the search committee that brought Banaji to Harvard. “More than any other scholar I know, she is able to integrate neural and contextual forces in explaining socially significant phenomena such as prejudice,” he says.

“Professor Banaji contributes wonderfully to all that we care about in our department – she is a brilliant and productive scientist, an amazing teacher at both the undergraduate and doctoral levels, a superb adviser of doctoral students preparing for research careers, and an insightful and caring departmental colleague,” he adds.

Banaji notes that her appointment to the Psychology Department as the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, nods toward the future of her work while honoring its past. The first professor to hold that chair, the groundbreaking social psychologist Gordon Allport, was her intellectual grandfather, her adviser’s adviser.

“Harvard really was able to imagine who exactly I was and what I might be able to do here,” she said. “I felt that there was a real understanding of the importance of this work and all the ways in which it could come to be linked to other fields.”

For Banaji, the future of this work lies not in branding people as racists or even in eradicating prejudice. Rather, she says, understanding implicit prejudice and admitting its existence is the first step toward righting the wrongs it brings about.

“For any society that cares about equality, that cares about fairness, it seems to me that the questions of the consequences of these very ordinary prejudices is a very critical one,” she said.