What color is a banana? Perception, bias, and identity

Slipping on the banana peel of implicit biasA quote attributed to author Anais Nin declares, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

The truth of these words is apparent in the following anecdotes, which I invite you to consider.

Anecdote 1

When my son was tested for a coveted spot in a private prekindergarten, he was asked, ”What color is a banana?”

”White,” he answered.

”A banana isn’t white!” he was told.

Fortunately, my son was not intimidated. He replied: ”Yes, it is. The peel is yellow, but the banana is white.”

He was accepted.

Anecdote 2:

When people say there’s no real difference between the way men and women in public life approach the issues, I am reminded of a pop quiz my seventh-grade biology teacher thought up, which I flunked. The quiz was simple: match the parts of the human body to the parts of a car. So the lungs were matched with the carburetor, the spark plugs were the nervous system, joints were like shock absorbers – or something. I am sure I still have it wrong.

The point is that almost all of the 13-year-old boys in the class aced the test and the girls – even ones who knew the functions of the human body cold – failed. Most of us had never looked under the hood of a car. We had a different reference for understanding the material, which the teacher (male, of course) never considered.

The first anecdote, originally part of a letter to the editor of the New York Times, appeared in “What is this question about?”, a post by Arnold Zwicky on the popular linguistics blog, Language Log. Zwicky was discussing the role that meaning plays in developing educational tests for children.

Boston Globe editorial page editor Renee Loth recounted the second one in an opinion piece on gender and politics.

The anecdotes may differ as to the events that each describes but the moral is the same.

In the first anecdote, the adult posing the question assumed that the child understood that “banana” signified “unpeeled and ripe but not overly ripe banana”. It was the question that was wrong, not the child’s answer. The question also rested upon a cultural assumption: that children taking such tests are familiar with yellow bananas. Children from other cultures may be familiar with bananas of a different hue. As Zwicky points out,

Note that there are red and purple varieties of banana, and that naturally ripened yellow bananas go from green to greenish yellow to brownish yellow (not a “good” yellow) as they ripen. The bananas of commerce in the U.S. are almost all yellow varieties; in fact, they are almost all artificially ripened Cavendish bananas. The ripening process produces vivid yellow bananas. So unless a child taking the test is accustomed to eating red bananas — say, in a Central American neighborhood — the child will give the expected answer, “yellow”.

In the second anecdote, the test-giver assumed that every student in his biology class shared his frame of reference and that the analogy of the car would be readily accessible to all. In that instance, gender played a significant role in the test scores that resulted. But in other situations, the car analogy would be just as incomprehensible regardless of gender but as a matter of economics and class – for example, among students whose parents don’t own a car or in schools located in neighborhoods where public transit not personal motor vehicles is the primary mode of transportation.

Each of these anecdotes reminds us that who we are shapes how we see the world. We are susceptible to influences of which we are often unaware, affecting our perception and our ability to judge. Until they are pointed out to us, our biases remain hidden from us, like the fruit concealed within the peel.

Just be careful not to slip on them.

8 responses to “What color is a banana? Perception, bias, and identity

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  2. Diane,

    Introspection is what we need,
    Unbent assumptions, yes, in deed!
    Watching all our inner works,
    Keep us freer from being jerks.

    Now you know the thoughts you cause,
    Writing non-rhyme verse you state the laws
    Of inner peace and outer ways,
    That make us better all our days.

    Thanks for thinking up these things,
    Giving thoughts such lofty wings.

    Take care.

    John

    • John, I can’t thank you enough! This may be the first time ever that a blog post of mine inspired poetry. This made my day.

  3. Diane,

    I admit, while reading I said yellow, ha!

    I enjoyed this, and this is another reminder how I can learn from anyone- including a young boy!

    -jeff

  4. I’ve experienced the unfortunate nature of these question ambiguities first hand, as have you. For example, I’ve seen good questions in my daughters’ homework where the “correct” answer was not, in my view, correct at all (or was only one of multiple “correct” answers). In instances like these — and the banana question which your son answered quite intelligently — , the irony is that the question drafters sometimes exhibit considerably less intelligence and creativity than those that are unfortunate enough to proffer the “wrong” answers. .

    I suppose I could blab on about this, but you’ve already made the point exceedingly well in your article. I don’t know where you come up with all these interesting topics for your posts — all of which are relevant to ADR — but whatever it is, keep doing it!!

    Phil

  5. Jeff, I have to admit, my first thought was “yellow”, too. Anything that teaches me something I like being able to pass along to my readers!

    Phil, you’re too kind. Thanks for the compliment! (By the way, sorry for the confusion, the boy in the first anecdote isn’t my son, it’s the son of a New York Times letter writer who described her son’s experience with the application process of an elite kindergarten. My apologies for the ambiguity.) I so appreciate it, Phil.

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