Have you ever made a typo? Have you ever misspelled something in a written document? Have you ever made a factual error? Chances are, if you are white and you made a mistake, the person reading it didn’t notice. Or if they noticed, they made an excuse for you. Don’t worry white folks, minor clerical errors won’t detract from your overall appearance of intelligence and competence.
But if you’re black, prepare to feel like an idiot. A new study shows that when law firm partners read identical memos, the partners who believed the author was white were much more forgiving than the partners who thought the author was black.
In Written in Black and White, selected law firm partners were asked to evaluate a single research memo into which 22 different errors were deliberately inserted – 7 spelling/grammar errors, 6 substantive writing errors, 5 errors in fact, and 4 analytic errors. Half of the partner evaluators were told that the hypothetical associate author was African American and half were told that the author was Caucasian…
On a five point scale, reviews for the exact same memo averaged a 3.2 for the “African American” author and 4.1 for the “Caucasian” author. More surprising were the findings of “objective” criteria such as spelling. The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the “Caucasian” authors and 5.8 such errors for the “African American” authors. Overall the memo presumed to have been written by a “Caucasian” was “evaluated to be better in regards to the analysis of facts and had substantively fewer critical comments.”
Bathe in your own implicit biases, ye commenters. Stew in the knowledge that your so-called “objective” criteria turn out to be just as prejudicial as anything else. Yes, Virginia, grammar BE RACEIST too.
Sorry, that felt good.
Now, this study isn’t “news” to any black person who has been paying attention to the unfair factors that affect their performance ratings. The white associate down the hall can get away with “22 different errors.” The black associate can’t, and he or she knows that. I know that. I know that when I make an error that Staci or Lat doesn’t catch in editing, people don’t give me the benefit of the doubt. I don’t get to be merely “inattentive,” I’ve got to be “stupid,” or “lazy,” or “stupid and lazy.”
And let me tell you a secret: the only reason I’ve been able to “overcome” my (admittedly f**king awful) grammatical errors is because “I speak so well.” You’ve seen me on television, I’m loud and aggressive, but you never see me devolve into a Stephen A. Smith caricature where I use polysyllabic words inappropriately or fail to conjugate a verb properly. If you see me on camera or in person, you’d never guess that homophones haunt my dreams or that I spell about as well as Ser Davos. So all the assumptions a person might make about my intelligence based on my clerical skills run into the assumptions they make based on my performance skills and cause the prejudice algorithm to get confused and spit out something like “he’s too fat to type well with those huge fingers.”
I’ll take it. But most black people don’t have the option of turning on the speaking skills if their writing skills can’t get them in the door. And black people have a much slimmer margin for error when it comes to those skills. Look at that study again: “The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the ‘Caucasian’ authors and 5.8 such errors for the ‘African American’ authors.” The partners didn’t even SEE the errors when they thought they were reading a white person. F**k, for all I know I’m bad at editing my own copy because I sound white to me.
Anyway, I’m not sure what white people are supposed to take away from this, other than that they’ve benefited from institutional advantages that they’re not even aware of. For minorities, I wouldn’t suggest that any person of color try to make a professional career while saddled with my level of grammatical blindness.
As I’m sure your parents have told you, it’s not good enough to be “just as good” as your white professional colleagues. You have to be better to get the same respect. YOU can’t make 22 freaking errors in a memo. Fairness is irrelevant. Check your work, check it again, then have your secretary check it before you submit it. Black people don’t get to have a “first draft.”