Just Deserts

In some research I am doing, I have been looking at studies on “implicit bias,” which I’m sure you’ve heard of if you’re the type of person who reads what I write. Through all my searching, I only found two studies (really two parts of the same study) where a version of the Implicit Association Test was used with regard to the field of English Language Teaching, and in this case it was performed on students. So in my research methods class, I am proposing that we use this instrument on ELT professionals.

Yet that’s not very compelling to me. Will it show that, like every other group of people, ELT professionals also have implicit bias towards white people? Of course. And the evidence is weak that implicit bias can really be altered, as it seems to descend from a life of being influenced by a world that reifies the message that people of color are worth less than whites.

Accordingly, I’ve looked at a few studies on system justification and meritocracy, not so much on whether the system is truly just or meritocratic (it’s not!), but whether or not the participants believe they exist within a meritocracy. I have no particular justification for the claim I am about to make, but there is a thread I am trying to draw through the literature review I just submitted to my professor that suggests that there is a chance a person’s external beliefs can be changed, and even if not, their behavior might be malleable.

I say all this to say that I doubt it’s possible to erase implicit bias, regardless of the nonsense the NYC DOE is trying to do. So I spent some time thinking more deeply about what meritocracy really means, and I did the corny thing and straight up found the definition. There’s a curious word in there, and that word is “deserve.” Basically, in a meritocracy, people are to be rewarded according to what they deserve.

Most Americans believe their country is meritocratic, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

So what does it mean that they can see the system for what it is – and, similarly, they tend to believe things are rigged – yet also see it as meritocratic? It goes back to that word, “deserve.”

Simply put, we have, for centuries, taught that the status quo, which prioritizes the few over the many, is the only way, and though some have always pointed out how wrong this is, we tend to accept it at face value. Why? Because a part of us, without realizing it, believes that the people who have fewer rights deserve their station in life.

This could apply to all sorts of discrimination, but ultimately, when it comes to racism, my point is simple: people believe, simultaneously, that they are not racist but that racism is deserved, even though they would never express it as such.

Can this be changed? Probably not just through a debate or a conversation, hard though one might try. Maybe through an entire educational program that has yet to be developed. I think there is some real unexplored value in developing a theory about people’s opinions on who deserves what kind of treatment. I think that, ultimately, people really do give people exactly the amount of respect, consideration, and kindness that they feel they deserve, whether or not they realize this or are willing to express it. And I think if this could developed and analyzed, real change could occur.

People really do give people what they feel are their just deserts, within the confines of social obligations (eg, professional hierarchy), and it absolutely applies to racial discrimination. It’s something I’m going to think about and gather research on, and perhaps make it the focus of my conceptual work in early 2020. To paraphrase a well-known movie, deserve’s got everything to do with it, much as we might pretend otherwise.