Poor old Roy Hodgson, the England manager, has been forced to apologise for calling Andros Townsend, a mixed-race player, a “space monkey”. As Martin Kettle in The Guardian and Iain Martin on this site have both written, Hodgson is a dignified and learned chap, and there is absolutely no suggestion that he meant “monkey” in the sense that genuinely racist people in football crowds do when they make ook-ook chants or throw bananas at black players: he was referring to a joke about Nasa astronauts which isn’t funny enough to relate here. Hodgson, apparently, is mortified by the suggestion he might have caused offence.
A colleague of mine points out that, if anything, Hodgson’s use of the word “monkey” in that context almost suggests he is more race-blind than most – someone who was thinking about these things might have thought “better avoid the word ‘monkey’ when I’m talking to a black guy”, which clearly never crossed Hodgson’s mind. But whether that’s the case or not, the laser-like focus on words like “monkey” distract from the real, far more complicated problems that society has with race.
In psychology, a lot of work is done using “implicit association tests”. In the tests, people sit in front of a screen and are asked to, for example, click the left button whenever they see a positive word flash up, and the right button whenever they see a negative word. So the words “joy”, “happy”, “death”, “terrible”, “failure”, etc, appear on the screen, and the person presses the appropriate button, and how long it takes them to do so is measured.
The “implicit assumption” stuff is added when, instead of simply clicking when you see the word, another layer is added. Now, for example, it might show either a positive or negative word, or a face. If the word is positive or the face is black, you might have to press the left button; if the word is negative or the face is white, you have to press the right one (or vice versa). The idea, and it is well established in psychological research, is that it takes you a bit longer to associate positive words with things to which you are subconsciously averse. And, lo and behold, most white people take significantly longer to associate positive words with black faces – even those of us who think of ourselves as firmly non-racist: one study, in 1998, found that “implicit measures were no more than weakly correlated with explicit measures of either attitude” – that is, you might be firmly, consciously anti-racist, but still find you have these negative subconscious attitudes. It is, I am told, deeply unsettling when you take the test yourself, because you notice the slower responses.
Interestingly, though, according to this Harvard FAQ about the test, half of black subjects had an implicit preference for white faces, which, they suggest, implies that there is a cultural basis, rather than a simple in-group out-group association. (The other half had an implicit preference for black faces.)
The point is that, however much you are consciously appalled by racial prejudice and discrimination, and intellectually aware that there is no rational basis for it, you are likely to have this sort of unconscious, implicit bias, over which your conscious brain has no control.
This has, I think, both genuinely alarming implications and some more hopeful ones. On the negative side, it makes racial bias far more common, and a far more complicated thing to deal with. If your conscious brain can’t even trust your subconscious not to be racist, it becomes that much harder to be sure that, say, the best candidate gets picked in job interviews, not merely the most white. On the positive, the fact that this appears to be at least partly an artefact of culture, not simply that all of us are automatically predisposed to distrust anyone who looks less like us, which implies that it is something that we can make better.
But it means it’s all complicated, something which requires more than a simple filter of “when a white man uses the word ‘monkey’ to refer to a black man, he is being racist”. As Stan Collymore said on Twitter afterwards, this sort of silliness undermines genuine efforts to reduce racism in football and society afterwards. It’s almost as though we want comforting, simple, black-and-white situations to distract us from our own much more complex problems.