We need to talk about bias

Hilarity ensued when professor Robert E. Kelly’s interview on the BBC was bombed by his two kids — first the toddler, then the baby — only to end in a crescendo when a frantic woman skidded in and dragged the kids out of the room. Trouble began, however, when a newspaper mistakenly reported that the woman was a nanny, not bothering to check first. The woman was in fact Jung-a Kim, Kelly’s wife, and mother of the two little hellions.

The reporter that assumed she was the nanny was not the only person making that mistake however, and soon the inevitable discussion on the internet about race and racism was in full bloom.

“I assumed she was the nanny because she looked so much younger than the guy, and a different ethnicity than her kids,” one commenter wrote. “Then you are a racist.” came the reply.

Making mistakes is human. Not admitting your mistake, that’s racist.

Is it problematic to assume that the woman in question was the nanny? Definitely. Is it racist? No, it’s statistics.

Assumptions (and biases) are built on past experiences. Jung-a Kim looked quite young in the clip and based on past experience we know that babysitting and nannying is common among young women. We also assume, based on past experiences, that people choose partners of the same ethnicity. Reasons ranging from everything from convenience to sharing a culture. It might be bad statistics, but it comes naturally. Making mistakes is human. Not admitting your mistake, that’s racism.

I would argue that calling racism on peoples assumptions is equally sloppy as making them without questioning them.

We make assumptions all the time based on what we’ve seen before. When I leave my house during the day, I assume that it’s going to be light out. It’s an evolutionary advantage that allows me to focus on the things that matter. Unfortunately this ancient system is causing trouble in our global world, but it is something that we can’t change in our selves. We just don’t have the mental capacity to constantly make calculations about things as if we’ve never encountered them before. If your first assumption when you saw that clip was that the woman was the mother, then you can pat yourself on the back. But you should also be aware that you are in minority. And I would argue that calling racism on peoples assumptions is equally sloppy as making them without questioning them.

I agree that a newspaper should check before making the aforementioned assumption. Printing that an asian woman is a nanny without the knowledge is sloppy journalism and disappointing. But it would be equally sloppy journalism had the woman been white, black or hispanic. The point being that journalism should not be based on assumptions. There is plenty of time to ask the question before the assumption is written down, edited and published.

What we can do for ourselves is make ourselves aware that we have these biases. When we know that we have them, we can challange them and slowly, perhaps change them. We do need this discussion. But no discussion is moved forward by alienating the people who think differently than you.