NPR’s Morning Edition offered up a very interesting piece on hidden stereotyping this morning, a report on the subtle effects that unconscious biases play out in every day life.
In one study it was found that physicians who exhibited no external signs of bias treated black and white heart attack patients differently. When shown the results of the study, the physicians were horrified.
The solution to counter-acting the effects of such unconscious biases was interesting by itself but also informative in the way that it plays into the calls for greater diversity in genre literature, the strong requests we’ve been seeing of late to expand the range of voices we hear from as well as the forms that our characters and covers take.
Apparently, exposing people to “counter-stereotypical” messages – words or pictures that challenge our unconscious associations (black = bad, white = good) – have a positive (at least short-term) effect. (For me, there’s no better visual example of this effect on others than a scene from Blazing Saddles: Cleavon Little as the newly appointed Sheriff of Rock Ridge arrives in town; he’s dressed in an expensive, coordinated buckskin outfit, wears a white hat and rides in on a white horse – an image straight out of the Lone Ranger [original version] except that the man wearing those clothes and sitting on that horse under that white hat is black. Talk about images that challenge unconscious associations!)
One researcher states that she’s loaded up her PC with counter-stereotypical imagery as screen savers and is exposed to them all day. She finds one particular image – a female construction worker nursing a baby at lunch time – to be particularly effective.
What are works of fiction but words and imagery?
Recently, TOR UK editor Julie Crisp wrote a piece touching on this issue, stating
“In the last few years I have seen numerous articles deploring the lack of female SFF writers, in science fiction in particular. And usually, the blame always comes back to the publisher’s doorstep. Every time I’ve seen one of these articles I get a little hot under the collar because, guess what? I work in publishing. I work in genre. And here’s the kicker – I’m a woman. Yes, a female editor commissioning and actively looking for good genre – male AND female.”
Perhaps this finding of subtle, unconscious bias is playing a role. Fortunately, we now have a study that not only identifies the problem but offers an effective solution – one already hit upon by members of our own clan. Want more diversity? Seek out counter-stereotypical works. It shouldn’t be that hard to do, after all, isn’t good genre all about turning things on their heads?
(Both the article and the audio can be found at the NPR link.)