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Bias/Prejudices In Black History Research

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
To get started on your “whole brain” cultivation let us look at some of the features of bias in relation to researching Black history and regardless of whether one is the researcher or one is reading (or listening to) researched material.  Bias is typically unacknowledged by any of us but is a tremendous force in directing a researcher’s perceptions to ensure the results come out the way he/she wants them to be. In starting to gather information without bias or prejudice, use available information to pick out the crude outlines of the “skeleton” of the subject. This first step—called “Fragmented Synthesis”—is done by putting the chaotic information into ordered classes and with each “class” representing a piece of the “skeleton.” Step Two analyzes each class and defines each part in each class so as to rearrange and recombine each part into its proper class. Step Three takes the results of Step Two and synthesizes them into classes that form a reasonable classification (Bailey, Critical Thinking).

At each step bias can enter. In gathering information from others, the information presenters, despite being very charming and really exerting themselves to be helpful, may have special mental or agenda problems. Some are like psychotics or con-artist where the first nine statements are true but the tenth one—the key point—is unreliable.  In dealing with a group of people who have a common sore spot (e.g. racists), each one may be biased about the same subject but in different ways because inside this sore spot are contained different types of venomous hatreds and irrationalities which, of course, give faulty impressions. At Step Two it may be the anti-racist beliefs that introduce bias as, for example, the researcher’s strong desire to pull for the underdog.  This may cause the researcher to look for and emphasize unusual incidents and to down play the common incidents. During slavery, it was not unusual for an abolitionist to take a pro-Slave biased stance which, in turn, generated disbelief in all statements made by southern Whites. Actually, many of the things southern Whites said about the Slaves were true but not for the reasons given by those Whites and without understanding that they were being deceived. It does not take but a small flaw to get one off track. When a scientist is wrong a fraction of a degree in sending a rocket to the moon, that rocket will wind up on Mars.

It is the researchers business to see clearly and report correctly.  From failing to do either properly, bias entered into the abolitionists’ idealization of the Slaves and that led to a lack of realism in their social action with reference to Slaves. We can suppose that most of the Slaves had the same bias from their points of view—perhaps exaggerating, for the purpose of getting the White person to whom they were dictating their story, to believe at least some of what they were saying—something that all of us have done at some point in our lives. Similarly, some of the Slaves who gave information about their lives were not free of an element of revenge and protest which might have colored the total truth. Besides, no one in a crowd sees an accident exactly the same way and the same person may rearrange or recombine or add “stuff” that keeps them from relating the same story twice.  For jazz musicians, this is good but not when searching for as close to the truth as one can get.  Each writer is best at one thing and perhaps not at other things he/she writes about. Be alert to discover the strengths and weakness of each writer. Beware of the tendency to only grab out of a bag of facts those with which you are familiar and/or expect. One reason for retaining biases and prejudices of which you are aware is your fear of exploring the unfamiliar.  This fear comes from not having developed the tools of Critical and Rational Thinking to know how to handle new problems as they pop up in the unknown.

website: www.jablifeskills.com 

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