Ugly Attitudes Under Our Skin

Ugly Attitudes Under Our Skin

I've been thinking a lot about bias, intolerance and hate lately. I've been thinking about:

* the racism and sexism Sonia Sotomayor has faced in being a U.S. Supreme Court nominee — the ludicrous idea that, unlike Sotomayor, white men carry no cultural or gender bias (read The Republic of T's blog on the Vulcan Standard for more on that) and are therefore uniquely able to be objective.

* the completely vile racism and sexism levelled at President Obama's eleven-year-old daughter Malia by posters on the Free Republic blog.

* Bloomsbury's attempt to white-wash the cover of Justine Larbalestier's YA book Liar
about a black female protagonist.

* the results of a U.S. research project on how gender and race affect customer service perception.

These are all items I've read about during the past week or so and are ugly evidence of the deep toxic attitudes our culture holds about who is competent, who is worthy.

The Oklahoman apparently saw nothing the matter with running a cartoon captioned “Fiesta Time at the confirmation hearing” which featured Sotomayor strung up like like a piñata and with a rope around her neck suggesting lynching, a group of elephants lined up in the foreground to beat her with sticks. Recently posters on the Free Republic blog deemed eleven-year-old Malia Obama "a typical street whore" and "ghetto street trash" for wearing a peace-symbol shirt. And U.S. publisher Bloomsbury decided to stick the face of a white girl on a book about a black one with the teen novel Liar.

With controversy brewing about the decision author Justine Larbalestier decided to blog about her opposition to the cover and also stated that:

"I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all."
Sadly, the publishing business and consumer bias against books with black characters on the cover seems to be in line with a societal bias in favour of white (specifically white male) doctors, bookstore clerks and golf store employees.

According to a paper that will be published later this year in the Academy of Management Journal a study examining customer service ratings for a health maintenance organization, golf courses and a mock bookstore found that “customers anonymously reported lower satisfaction with service from women and minority employees performing at the same level and offering the same service as white male employees.”

The researchers showed “female and minority (mostly Asian) physicians were consistently rated lower than white male doctors providing the same services. In fact, the more the female and minority doctors tried to provide better service, such as being available to patients, returning patients' emails and taking time to talk, the worse they scored.”

The bookstore and golf course research demonstrated a similar bias in favour of white males. Golfers gave lower ratings to “courses that employed high percentages of women and minorities, even when productivity and quality of the facilities were the same.” In the bookstore the scripts and behaviour of actors playing bookstore employees never varied yet people “gave the female and black male bookstore employees significantly lower ratings than the white male employees.”

I believe that with the current controversy over Justine Larbalestier's book, Bloomsbury will soon change their minds and ditch the white cover they'd planned for Liar. I think this controversy will also help deter publishers from white-washing books in the future. That may not automatically make them sell better but I have to believe that change is cumulative, and that the more we consciously challenge our own ingrained attitudes, and the more judges who don't fit the white male mold sit on the Supreme Court, and the more black characters we see on book covers, that the less likely someone will be to call an eleven year old African-American girl 'trash' or think a talented doctor is somehow less than because of the colour of his or her skin or an extra X chromosome.
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