Day 32. Sweep your chimney, guv?

I wouldn’t normally post two dispatches in such quick succession, but my post-departmental-vote-gift-to-myself has been license to luxuriate in gratuitous Fluevoggery and idle bloggery.

More to the point, I received from my dear friend Natalie last night an email that fairly begged in the manner of a Dickensian street urchin to have a dispatch constructed around it, particularly given my recent discussion of London accents.

This was how the message began. I am quoting verbatim with only names redacted and explanation in square brackets.

From: Natalie ----
Subject: Chimney sweep clothes

To: ----- ------

Hi -----,

I don't suppose --- [elder flopsy-duckit] has any 
chimney sweep-like items of clothing? Waistcoat 
(vest in US terms), newsboy hat, dark colored shirt?

All right. Let’s mull this one over. I’ve flexed my fingers and cracked my knuckles. I’m going to enjoy this.

Now, I haven’t confirmed this with Natalie, but my strong hunch is that I was the first and possibly the only person she approached with this request. Now, why is this significant, you might ask?

It’s significant because, as you are now aware, the duck-rabbit hails from Norf London, which, in days gone by, positively teemed with under-age chimney-sweeps. And so, naturally, Natalie, who hails from Cheltenham, my dear, supposes, simply from the harsh tones of the duck-rabbit’s vowels, that it simply must own a full set of child-size chimney-sweep attire. [1]

What makes Natalie’s assumption that the duck-rabbit, as a Norf Londoner, would be likely to possess a full complement of chimney sweeping attire quite ironic is that Natalie herself, as an Englishwoman, was, as her email demonstrated, subject to the same kinds of assumptions.

For, as Natalie’s email went on to explain, the very reason she needed chimney-sweep attire was because her eldest son had been cast as

“a chimney sweep in the school performance next week 
and we've just been asked to provide these items!”

Now, is it simply a coincidence that Natalie’s son (whose cherubic face and ever-so-slightly Anglicized accent cry out “Oliver!”) was cast as a chimney-sweep?

No, my friends, it is not.

Rather, here we have here a rather nice dramatization of how one set of people (LAUSD teachers) will make the assumption based, on all likelihood, the 1964 film of Mary Poppins, that all English families, even upper-middle-class ones, are able to get their hands on chimney sweep-clothes on short notice. But that set of English people will in turn make a more specialized set of assumptions. They know that they don’t own the chimney-sweep clothes, so the people who must own the chimney-sweep clothes must be the Londoners. Right? And then, in turn, the born-and-bred Londoners (like myself) assume that it is current residents of London who are in possession of the national stock of chimney sweep-clothing. And then, those London residents assume that it is, oh, I don’t know, the people who live in Mile End who have the chimney sweep clothing. [2] We may illustrate the proposition thus:

circles of chimney sweeps

And so on and so forth. We are all convinced that there is someone who has easy access to child-sized chimney sweep clothing. And we are all wrong.

I present this to you as a facetious and flippant example of something serious and deeply troubling, which is the phenomenon of implicit bias. It’s something I talked about during last week’s final History of Modern Thought lecture, when the assigned reading was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein provides a very obvious of example of implicit bias, perhaps most clearly in the reaction of Felix De Lacey to the creature created and brought to life by Victor Frankenstein. Felix is characterized as just and sensitive. He is horrified and indignant when he witnesses a trial that sentences a Muslim merchant to death, and “it was judged that his [the Muslim merchant’s] religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him had been the cause of his condemnation.” And yet, the just and sensitive Felix, merely upon “beholding” the creature, who kneels submissively at Felix’s father’s feet, “in a transport of fury ….dashed [the creature] to the ground and struck [him] violently.”

That word “transport” is revealing, I think. To be transported, in this period, is to be in a reverie, a dream-like state, not acting consciously.

I said this was an example of implicit bias. What kind of implicit bias? As you’ll recall if you’ve read the novel, Shelley represents Felix as involuntarily moved, not to fury, but to love, by the “exquisite beauty” of Safie, the “lovely Arabian.” That which is beautiful produces love. That which is hideous (an adjective that is frequently applied to the creature by those who witness his appearance) elicits fury and violence. [3]

I present Frankenstein to my students as a novel about the tyranny of sight. Automatically deeming the beautiful to be lovable and the hideous to be worthy of violent attack is a form of implicit bias. I mean obviously, one could also be explicitly biased in this way, but the example of implicit bias (as embodied, I’m arguing, by Felix, who regards himself as a champion of justice) is more interesting and also more disturbing because more pervasive and more insidious.

I’ve been thinking a lot about implicit bias recently because at a fantastic event I attended last weekend held by the UC Working Group on the Philosophy of Perception, one of the philosophers mentioned the Harvard Implicit Association Test. The philosopher recommended taking the test as an interesting but also rather unsettling experience. [4]

There are several components to the test and I have taken one of them, the Gender and Career Implicit Association Test, twice. Why have I taken it twice? Because the first time I scoffed at my result, which was as follows: “Your data suggest a strong association of Male with Career and Female with Family compared to Female with Career and Male with Family.”

This was, in fact, the data analysis told me, a stronger than average association; most people who take the test have a moderate association of male with career and female with family.

After taking the test once, I was irritated. I felt that I had been bamboozled into those associations. I would take the test again, I decided, and this time I would concentrate, and my true, unbiased self would reveal itself. Taking the same test for the second time was illuminating. Knowing exactly how the test worked now, I had assumed that the tasks would be easier the second time around. Instead I was now quite painfully aware as I was completing the text that it was, in fact, trickier for me to associate “male” with family and “female” with career. The end result was exactly the same.

For those of you who don’t know, I have had a full-time job for the last seven years and for the last several years He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved has stayed at home full-time with the children. Interesting, huh?

In some ways, taking the test merely reinforced something that already seems obvious, which is that there can be a remarkable, unsettling discrepancy between one’s conscious and subconscious beliefs. When we were discussing Frankenstein and implicit bias in class on Wednesday, the discussion turned, naturally, to police violence against African-Americans and racism more generally. One student observed that when Americans see a bearded, dark-skinned, middle-eastern looking man, they think: terrorist. As I observed to the student, what’s especially disturbing to me is that I suspect that I myself, the daughter of a dark-skinned, Muslim man, the sister of a swarthy-looking fellow who is never not subjected to a special search when he goes through security at airports, am also guilty of harboring this same implicit bias. [5]

If the non-traditional division of labor in our household for the last several years has made no dent in my “strong” association of “female” with “family,” then I suspect that it’s probably quite difficult to change one’s implicit biases. But surely it must be good to cultivate an awareness of them, nonetheless, no? For even if we cannot easily change our implicit biases, we can at least, in recognizing them as biases, more systematically avoid acting upon the reflexive judgments that they produce. To do avoid acting upon such reflexive judgments may not amount to casting off the “Mind forg’d manacles” of implicit bias, to quote one of the all-time great defenders of chimney sweeps; but it does, at the very least, represent one way of resisting those bonds.[6]


[1] The only thing I know about Cheltenham is that there is a famous girls’ boarding school there called Cheltenham Ladies’ College. That’s all you need to know.

[2] Entirely gratuitous reference to Mile End purely so I could mention this song.

[3] If anyone knows anything about the etymology of the word “hideous,” I’d be interested. I looked in the OED but there wasn’t much information.

[4] The fact that many people who take the test do find it unsettling is indicated by the waiver you have to agree to before taking it: “I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed.

[5] One of the Harvard tests is focused on this bias in particular. See the Arab Muslim – Other People IAT at No, I haven’t taken it yet. I’m scared to.

[6] No, not Bert from Mary Poppins. Good God, who are you people?


2 thoughts on “Day 32. Sweep your chimney, guv?

  1. Tamar says:

    My own implicit bias tells me that the population most likely to own child-sized chimney-sweep attire is Williamsburg parents. Definitely the newsboy hats, at least.

Leave a Reply