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May 04, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's Hair

gladwell.jpgSomewhere in the fourth or fifth chapter of his [damned good] book 'Blink', Malcolm lets the cat out of the bag. He's a brudda. I'm reading it now and am resisting the temptation to thin slice it. But I know a good thing when I read it.

I recorded his interview with Charlie Rose about a month ago and the first thing I notice about this guy is the way that his hair shoots up and accentuates his forehead. As he went on to explain the premise of 'Blink' about the congnitive engine of our first impressions, I was working out what it was about him that struck me as different. It was the hair, it was the bearing, it was the suit.

Then he told Charlie that he was from Canada. Aha! I knew there was something about this guy that made him different from the run of the mill American intellectuals. He's sharp, dammit, he's sharp as a tack. And since he's got this bearing of intellectuality I'm saying that the hair is his Blink signal. It makes him look a little bit like a mad scientist, not quite as mad as Beakman, but close. I like his style, and more importantly I like his concept.

So over the course of the last few weeks on the road, I've been doing a lot more reading and this time out I picked up Gladwell's book. I've been meaning to get around to it and the other one about distributed collective decision making, since that's what I do for a living - build systems that aid in business decision making. Last night I read the sentence, his moms is from Jamaica. What a surprise.

And now suddenly, especially in Googling an image for this blog entry, I see in a series of other pictures that which had not been evident in my first impressions. Negrosity! Funny how that works. What's interesting is that he was discussing his results from Harvard's Racial Implicit Assumption Test which I have taken several times without chagrin. To the extent that this is a brief and light meditation on race, Gladwell's book (and not his appearance) adds yet another drop of reason onto the pile of evidence about Class Three Racism - the background bigotry of American culture. In short, first impressions are significantly determined by a large number of associations which the brain manifests subconsciously. I don't believe that raises it to a significant political level, but the associations and sublime reactions are real nonetheless.

What's fascinating is that I hadn't taken Gladwell's hair as seriously as he had. I had read the following paragraph before and considered him a rather thoughtful guy with that experience. I was not surprised at how he had taken it in stride, neither then nor now.

Believe it or not, it's because I decided, a few years ago, to grow my hair long. If you look at the author photo on my last book, "The Tipping Point," you'll see that it used to be cut very short and conservatively. But, on a whim, I let it grow wild, as it had been when I was teenager. Immediately, in very small but significant ways, my life changed. I started getting speeding tickets all the time--and I had never gotten any before. I started getting pulled out of airport security lines for special attention. And one day, while walking along 14th Street in downtown Manhattan, a police van pulled up on the sidewalk, and three officers jumped out. They were looking, it turned out, for a rapist, and the rapist, they said, looked a lot like me. They pulled out the sketch and the description. I looked at it, and pointed out to them as nicely as I could that in fact the rapist looked nothing at all like me. He was much taller, and much heavier, and about fifteen years younger (and, I added, in a largely futile attempt at humor, not nearly as good-looking.) All we had in common was a large head of curly hair. After twenty minutes or so, the officers finally agreed with me, and let me go. On a scale of things, I realize this was a trivial misunderstanding. African-Americans in the United State suffer indignities far worse than this all the time. But what struck me was how even more subtle and absurd the stereotyping was in my case: this wasn't about something really obvious like skin color, or age, or height, or weight. It was just about hair. Something about the first impression created by my hair derailed every other consideration in the hunt for the rapist, and the impression formed in those first two seconds exerted a powerful hold over the officers' thinking over the next twenty minutes. That episode on the street got me thinking about the weird power of first impressions.

One of the reasons I have been very specific about not calling people racist when I was a race man is because very few people actually are. Nevertheless we all swim in the same soup they piss in, and few of us are unaffected. Stay tuned for the actual review of the book.

Posted by mbowen at May 4, 2005 01:07 PM

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Cobb, you should stop associating human ills with America. Black people do that, as if America or white people invented bigotry. I am black, I have lived in Africa, I have friends from Africa and Asia and I assure you that bigotry is a universal human phenomenon. To prefer one's own kind and think everyone else is less than human is natural. It's only in western culture that it's considered wrong. I have noticed many times that third worlders who critisize the west for bigotry have no hesitation in being bigoted towards minorities in their own countries. I urge every black person who thinks America is hell to go live in any Asian, Muslim, or Arab country. You'll discover what bigotry really is.

Posted by: Anita at May 5, 2005 06:55 AM

I'm curious. What is bigotry, REALLY?

Posted by: Lester Spence at May 5, 2005 07:18 AM

Anita, I do not. In fact, I am very specific when it comes to describing racism and I'm going to fix the link in the above post to my piece on 'Effective Resonance'. If you don't care the check that out, the abstract is this - racial offense is relative and should be measured with respect to the power of the affected group.

A good example of that is that the 'runaway bride' blamed a Latino man for her 'kidnapping' and there has been relatively little specific racial fuss over that. But if she had blamed a black man, there would have been a great deal more fuss. I'm saying her charge is more damaging to the Latinos because they have less political capital than blacks. Likewise as a general principle blacks, being a far more powerful group than latinos ought to complain *less* about racist offense. We are more capable of dealing with it.

As for the Gladwell incident, I am calling that Class Three.

Bigotry is what is done by bigots. Bigots are people who feel that it is part of their ethical duty to discriminate. Racial bigots discriminate on the basis of racial stereotypes or ideals.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2005 08:02 AM

Cobb, I don't agree with what you said about Hispanics. They have less political capital than we do because they are not organized. But the reason they are not organized is because they don't really identify themselves as harmed minorities in the same way we do. Many of them regard themselves as white or near white. Alot more of them marry whites than we do, and their children are considered white. Does anyone care that Martin Sheen or Raquel Welch are Hispanic? Jennifer Lopez is identified as that, but in all her movies she either plays a white person or is paired with a white male, and it's not an issue. The Hispanic dynamic is different. I think one day they'll all just be white people, except for those who are obviously physically of african heritage. And I'm not so sure that they are any less racist regarding us. I have a friend from Ethiopia who was sent to Cuba, and managed to get out, and he was dismayed at the status of blacks there, far lower than here and they are half or nearly half the population. The reason I say so much about this is because we are always trying to console ourselves by imagining that other nonwhite races are with us and feel the same way we do, but it's just that - imagination. Anyway, I like reading your site. You should say something about Farrakhan's planned march in DC.

Posted by: Anita at May 5, 2005 12:59 PM

What you mean we? I'm a republican.

Seriously, I think you will find that since most blackfolks are not in poverty or part of the criminal class, their politics are going to change radically from what they were just 30 years ago. But because a whole lot of blackfolks who were politically active in the 60s and 70s have remained so, they haven't bothered to rethink their politics. There will always be at least 3 million black constituents for the politics of protest, but you will not get the broad cross-section of well educated, solid middle class and working class support for those old politics...

I'm going to take this issue to the top and try to tie in what Lester asked about organization strategies.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2005 03:58 PM

Hi Cobb,

I don't have any comments about the hair, but I did want to comment about the Harvard test. I had read a few excerpts of the book "Blink" from a friend of mines copy and saw that topic in the book and had been wanting to check out the site. You're post gave me that opportunity.

I had some doubts about the validity of the test, and still do. Initially, I assumed it wasn't valid because the results would be skewed toward the initial association. (If Good and White were initially associated with the left side, then when Bad and White were associated with the left side, your reactions to classify "Awful" with the left side would be slowed). However, the site claims that they compensate for that. Still, it seems that the slightest hesitation would be hard to compensate for.

In any case, I took the age and race tests and it said I had no preference for age and a slight preference for black over white. I'm just not convinced that these results are valid. Although, being 38, I can see how I wouldn't have a preference for old or young, since I'm kind of in between.

I'd like to believe that my preferences are based on individuals, and not their age or the color of their skins. And even if that isn't true, I'm still skeptical that an online test would truly be able to tell otherwise.

Anyway, it did seem like an interesting book. I'll probably pick it up one of these days and read the whole thing.

Sorry for the rambling post.

Posted by: Richard at May 6, 2005 01:57 PM

Please feel free to ramble. Rambling is what we do here.

I seem to recall that there was one name in the whole series of names on the IAT that continued to throw me off. I think it was a 'white' name for which I knew several blackfolks. In either case, I showed no preference either. Or maybe it was a flashlight that made me think of a weapon.

Either way I think Gladwell puts the perspective of thin-slicing vs deliberative thought in very good relief through the book, as well he shows their influence on each other.

I happen to believe that also, as it applies to race, Gladwell picks up on a very interesting phenomenon. He says that all of us thin-slice equally well. That is our unconscious preferences are, in most areas, as good as the experts. However when we try to explain our thin-slice preferences with deliberative descriptions, we screw up. This is the difference between experts and the rest of us.

As a race man, I have found this to be very true. As you can see on the left hand column under the Boohabian subtitle, I compiled a race neutral 'are you racist' quiz. I have found that since I have made a studied effort to make sense of minute meanings in racial discussions, there are a lot of gotcha points that I could raise against people who otherwise don't impress me as racist at all. In otherwords I think most people do the right thing (or the wrong thing) with regard to race, but cannot explain what it is that motivates them to do so. Their instincts are one thing, but they get it twisted when they try to explain.

The distinction between thin-slicing and deliberative thought is very useful to me. And so I think you are right about the IAT being only partially useful. Additionally, I think this distinction takes a big chunk out of McIntosh's White Privilege Checklist.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 6, 2005 02:16 PM

Richard, I'm familiar with the exam. I've taken them all more than a dozen times and never gotten a score. Me thinks too much.

There used to be a significant methodological problem in the earlier version. The IAT didn't use pictures back in the day because computers couldn't render them quickly...they just used names. And if you're using a name like Jane vs. a name like Leroy it is difficult to tell whether you're dealing with race AND class, just class, or just race.

But once they fixed that? It's golden. If it's telling you you've got a slight preference for black...I'd say you either HAVE a slight preference for black or you are neutral. There's nothing wrong with the test. It's the best of its kind.

Posted by: Lester Spence [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 6, 2005 06:35 PM

Hmm. The guy grows his hair long and suddenly gets stopped. Well, I grew a beard and suddenly started getting stopped and I'm white, not black. I am pulled out of line for closer inspection on every international flight I take.

Long hair and beards make one look counter-cultural; now ask Malcolm why he doesn't cut his hair (or ask me why I don't cut my beard), even though he certainly is not counter culture.

I tried the IAT (the one about Arab Muslims) and it scored me true -- I do have a prejudicial attitude toward Arab Muslims and it's one I know I shouldn't have but do anyway. It was really obvious to the testers because of how my brain showed its wiring during several sections of the test.

Posted by: UncleSmrgol at May 8, 2005 12:44 AM


Thanks for letting me ramble. :-)

I agree with you about the book, at least what little I read of it. The evening I took the test online my friend called me and read another part of the book. It was a section that took scrambled words and asked the reader to make a sentence out of it. It was interesting as well, however neither my friend nor I had the anticipated reaction.

And Lester, I really don't think I have a preference for any so-called race, but I suppose it is possible. Does that mean I hate myself? :-)

Still, I think there are some very interesting concepts in the book and would like to read it in it's entirety on day.

As for the issue with the hair, I've had experiences similar to UncleSmrgol's. I notice a remarkable difference when I had short hair and not beard and when I have long hair and a beard. Not just from police, but from store owners as well.

And Lester, I don't think I have a preference for any so-called race, but I suppose it's possible. Does that mean I hate myself? :-)

Posted by: Anonymous at May 10, 2005 06:05 AM