A White Man Called Me N******

It’s amazing what you miss when something grabs your attention. Focus, and life fades into the background. Start a conversation in a crowded park and most of what you hear will be your friend’s voice. But listen to a recording of the conversation and you’ll hear 27,000 things in the background that were louder than your friend’s voice.

This phenomenon is called selective attention. We have limited brainpower; selective attention helps us tune in to what’s important while ignoring what’s unimportant. It’s essential for holding conversations in crowded parks or navigating downtown Brooklyn on the way to work, where locals like me run an obstacle course consisting of bikes, buses, and tourists meandering down the sidewalk, savoring the cityscape.

I am carrying a white cup of coffee with green lettering and my name written on it. A block away, I hear reggae playing. I tilt to squeeze between two people. A little girl is dancing with an old lady. They’re in my way. I bear left. A bus passes on my right. My head bobs. I haven’t heard this song in a while. I’m walking on a vent. I feel cold air rush out as I hear, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” I’m further down the block. The reggae is still loud enough to hear, but fades as I approach the guy selling Christian music. Someone’s cooking cabbage this early in the morning? “I got edibles.” The bus beeps. I am at the corner, preparing to turn. It’s noisy, so I don’t quite hear the word. I hear the man. I hear the scorn in his voice. I hear that scorn directed toward me.

I slow down.

My neck starts to turn.

My eyebrow starts to rise. 

* * * * * * *

I couldn’t tell you when I first learned the word nigger was supposed to upset me when a white person said it. Mom says I never asked. I knew what racist meant by the time I was 11 – I told Mom all about it. But nigger? No idea. People in my neighborhood said it often enough that I certainly learned the word as a child. But I never heard a white person use it during my childhood. Not in person, anyway. And I went to school with white kids from the age of six. 

Maybe I’m too young. After all, during his 1983 stand up routine Delirious, a 22-year old Eddie Murphy observed, “Racism ain’t as bad as it used to be anyway, man. I mean it’s fucked up, but they don’t call niggers niggers no more and shit. White people don’t say it — especially when there’s niggers around, so I guess I wouldn’t know.” But a year before Murphy told this story, further explaining that he went to the deep South “looking for racism” only to be treated well by the white people he met, Chris Rock dropped out of high school after years of being bullied by his white classmates in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood he went to school in. “I was getting called nigger every day, and you get spit on and it’s hard to make friends,” said Rock in a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes. “In elementary school, kids imitated their older brothers and said, ‘My older brother calls black people niggers, so I’ll do it, too.’ But in junior high it starts to get physical — and more physical by high school,” said Rock in a 2005 interview in the New York Post.

I asked a few friends I went to grade school with, just to be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. Seven said they never heard a white person say it. Four said rarely. Four said sometimes. But while I was growing up, I definitely heard stories. From people 20 years older than Murphy. Though in retrospect, I heard them from a small portion of people I knew, who oft repeated the same one or two incidents many times over several years.

They might also be too young. U.S. newspapers printed the word 115,047 times between 1810 and today. Australian newspapers printed it twice as often. In the U.S., the word barely appears from 1820-1849, appearing four times from 1820 to 1829, 187 times from 1830 to 1839, and 896 times from 1840 to 1849. Then the word went viral. 6,921 appearances from 1850-1859. 20,588 appearances from 1860-1869. And there it stayed, being printed between 10,000 and 20,000 times a decade until 1919. But then, as viral phenomena are wont to do, it faded, never appearing more than 1,200 times in a decade after 1939. 

If I had been born when it was common to see the word in the newspaper, perhaps I’d have also heard a white person say it in public and would have learned I was supposed to be upset from direct experience. Alternatively, if I had been born after the internet became widely available, perhaps I’d have learned its meaning from one of 38.5 million search results. Or, I could’ve opened a book published in 1863, 1938, or 1969, years when the word peaked in that medium. As it stands, I learned from hearsay. Therefore, It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment I learned nigger was a “bad word.” My best guess is that I learned it from a combination of those stories and a “very special episode” of some TV show.

None of this matters in the first moment after the word was spoken. I’m not even aware that I’ve heard anything, or that I’m reacting to it. My reactions in these first milliseconds are automatic. What matters in this moment is that I perceived a threat. Though I’m not conscious of my actions, I’m preparing to face that threat. If he had instead used the Cantonese phrase boon chon doi, I wouldn’t have reacted. His tone might have told me it was an insult, but I don’t speak Cantonese. I wouldn’t have had enough information to know how to react. Likewise, if I were a native English speaker raised outside the United States (except, perhaps, Australia), I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction. I would have just looked at him, confused.

* * * * * * *

Words come into existence to serve a need. They evolve. Acquire and lose meanings. Jump between languages. Become fashionable for a time and fade into obscurity.

Nigger started life as the Latin words nigrum and niger. These meant black, sable, dark, or dusky, and were used to describe a variety of things, including the complexion of dark-skinned Aethiops (Ethiopians) or Afer (Africans). Sometimes, Latin speakers skipped description, opting to use nigrum and niger in place of Aethiops or Afer.

The Roman Republic, via war, brought Latin to much of Europe and Northern Africa starting in the third century BCE. Eventually, civil wars would give birth to the Roman Empire. The empire died in 476 AD, but the language lived on. With time and isolation, Latin evolved from one language into many, today called the Romance Languages. In the branch that became Spanish, niger and nigrum evolved into negro (roughly pronounced “ney-gro”). In the branch that became French, they evolved into nègre. Form and pronunciation had changed, but meaning did not. The words still referred both to the color black and to Africans.

By the 1500s, people speaking Germanic languages were borrowing negro from people speaking Romance languages. But these languages already had words for the color. In German, it’s schwarz. Swedish – svart. Icelandic – svartur. English dictionaries still have an entry for swart, but somewhere between 400 and 1000 AD, Old English speakers started using blæc instead. Blæc evolved into black and blacke. Without a need for an extra word to describe the color, the English word negro (later Negro) came to refer only to Africans and their descendants.

The English negro probably sounded a lot like its Spanish parent. This is because English used to be pronounced differently. The Great Vowel Shift occurred from 1350 to 1700, affecting the pronunciation of most English words. High, for example, used to be pronounced “hee.” Like sounded closer to “lake.” Shakespeare’s works contain rhymes and puns that disappear when spoken with the English accent known as BBC English or Received Pronunciation.

The Shift happened around the same time English spelling was being standardized, and is thus responsible for most of English’s weird spelling issues. For example, Reason uses the newer pronunciation of the ea combination, but bear and swear maintained their original pronunciation. Likewise, the shift likely changed ney-gro to nee-gro. Meanwhile, people who spoke Dutch, Scottish, and Northern English dialects transformed negro and nègre into neger and negar. Neger appears to have been a neutral term until nigger makes its first written appearance in the 1770s or 1780s. Nigger was always used as an insult.

Except when it wasn’t.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is the 20,120th most used word in the English language. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider this: there are 171,476 English words currently in use. This places nigger in the top 12% of all words used in the English language. The top 20% of all English words make up 80% of all English words used. Nigger is used more often than mussels (20,211th), pea (21,669th), thug (28,787th), lubricate (55,625th), yolks (28,935th), and raindrops (31,923rd). If all the words we used each day were evenly distributed among all English speakers, each of us would hear it a little more than once a day. But the distribution is skewed. Some people never hear it. Some hear it several times a day. When I was fourteen, I probably said it several times an hour, often in front of my mother. When I asked Mom how she felt about my use of the word, she said, “I hated it.” 

Of course, I wasn’t using the racial epithet nigger, I was saying nigga. As in person, friend, companion, or acquaintance. I told Mom it was new. We’re taking the word for ourselves. All the hip-hop artists are saying it. All my friends are saying it.

“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?”

“Mom, you just don’t understand. It isn’t like when you were a kid. We’re doing something new. Something different.

We weren’t.

Nigga dates back to at least 1925, representing a Southern pronunciation of the word. Self-referential usage can be found even earlier. In the book Remembering Slavery, former slave Rachel Cruze talked about boys trying to get a date with the girls from a neighboring farm:

Gainan he watched his girls closely — used to sit on a chair between his two houses where he could see everything — and if a skinny reedy-sort of nigger made his appearance among the young people Gainan would call him over and say, “Whose nigger are you?” The boy would tell him. Gainan would look him over and say, “Well, that’s all right, but I don’t want you comin’ over to see my gals. You ain’t good stock.” And it would be too bad for that nigger if Gainan caught him there again.

Elsewhere, in The Music of Black Americans: A History, Eileen Southern said, “During a woodcutting song hundreds of slaves, paired off in twos in front of the trees, marked ‘the blows by the song’:”

A cold frosty morning, The niggers feeling good, Take your ax upon your shoulder, Nigger, talk to the wood.

Self-referential usage of this sort is normal. Words coined by one social group often transfer to another. Indeed, no one cared when nigger or its cousins were seen as merely descriptive (though I’m certain some Latin-speaking kids also used it as an insult from the beginning). But when a word is used as an insult, disempowered groups tend to take it for their own use. For these groups, the would-be insult is converted into an expression of affiliation. A term of empowerment. A way of saying, “this is who I am, no matter what kind of box you try to put me in.”

Mom wasn’t impressed with that explanation either.

* * * * * * *

Two-thirds of a heartbeat has passed.

My forward motion has stopped.

My body is starting to turn.

My consciousness is coming into play. My brain is sorting through a lifetime of information. It’s quick. Jumbled. Something isn’t quite right, but I don’t yet know what it is.

* * * * * * *

The only thing remarkable about the appearance of nigger in Australian newspapers is how unremarkable it is. Advertisements offering nigger brown as one of several colors of pantyhose. A play titled The Nigger, where the white Governor of a U.S. State learns he’s part black. Another titled Ten Little Nigger Boys. A report noting that Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, formerly known at the Nigger Quartet, was inspired by Negro folk songs (now called Spirituals). Articles about events in the United States. Racehorses and missing dogs named Nigger. Fish (ludericks) nicknamed nigger. Nigger Boy steel wool pads.

Limiting the search terms to nigger leaves you with only a hint of the relationship between the 400+ distinct peoples now collectively known as Aborigines and the descendants of the British colonists. A 1951 article talks about extending voting rights to the Aborigines. A 1979 report concerning Carnavon, West Australia noted, among other things, that Aboriginal children “were asked scathingly if they ate grubs by white schoolmates.” A 1923 article titled Election Workers Entertained reports that Billy Hughes, the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, hosted his supporters at an event. Mr. Hughes didn’t want to discuss the political matters of the day. But he didn’t want his guests to get the wrong idea, so “Mr. Hughes told a story which he thought was not inappropriate.” In the story, one man unsuccessfully tries to get another to speak, getting angrier with each subsequent attempt. It wasn’t funny. But the audience laughed.   

Britain established its first colony in Australia in 1788 after losing the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the colonies it ruled for nearly 200 years. A year earlier, the United States were writing compromises to protect slavery into their new Constitution. Five years later, Britain was taking its first steps toward ending slavery. The Aboriginals may not have been slaves, but, as noted by Loretta de Plevitz and Larry Croft, in “the era of colonial and post-colonial government, . . . [if you] had a ‘strain’ of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” These limitations on Aboriginal life help to explain the casual, nonchalant use of nigger in Australian newspapers.

Casual and nonchalant are not words one would use to describe the American use. Nigger was considered an insult in both Australia and the United States, but in the United States and the colonies that preceded them, nigger developed a personality. “Monkies, if da no had a tail, be nigger’s kin-folks” (1835). “The fiendish nigger” (1832). “‘Snowball’ is a curious thing to gather vegetables – but we suppose this is another name for ‘free nigger’” (1835). “There lay his murderer, a soulless nigger, grinning in death, the hideous grin of triumph over his fallen master!” (1835). During the Civil War, numerous editorials were written about the nigger question. In 1868, a few years after the war, there are stories about nigger radicals, nigger rights, nigger outrages, and the Virginia nigger mob convention. By the 1890s, the Southern States invented convict leasing, using spurious criminal charges and harsh sentencing to force ex-slaves to once again work for free. This system was possible thanks to a longstanding rule, incorporated into the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing for slavery as punishment for a crime. By 1900, 30% of the U.S. prison population was black. Nigger became lazy and an assumed criminal.

Again, limiting the search leaves you with only a hint of a complex relationship. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name, historian David Levering Lewis said, “If you were to ask most Southerners, white Southerners what they thought of African-Americans in the 1850s, the 1860s, even into the 1870s, one profile would’ve been of people who are loyal, dutiful, trustworthy.” Newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves tend to agree. A slave named Celeste was described by her master as “very smart & Capable … & was a very competent servant.” Letty Brown was described as “a steady, clever, hard working woman & a good washer & ironer.” Isaac was “very intelligent, can read very well, and I [his owner] believe write.” Sam was “extremely proud, smokes segars, and walks with a considerable air – he is a good cook, an excellent waiter in the house, and carriage driver.” However, Lewis said, “Those same people in the 1880s and by the 1890s have been demonized. They are no longer trustworthy. They no longer have the capacity for citizenship.”

Nigger blossomed in the United States while black people were in a state of perpetual mutiny. They escaped, tried to escape, revolted, engaged in work slowdowns, maintained a sophisticated communication network, stole food and clothes, had parties, held private religious services, and killed others and themselves in their fight for self-determination. Slave owners responded by separating the interests of poor white and black people, ending indentured servitude (which mostly affected Europeans), inventing lifetime and intergenerational slavery (which mostly affected Africans), limiting education and access to weapons, separating families, inflicting physical punishment, and arming themselves. They also spread propaganda, seeding ideas in the general population to further their own agenda. Some of these ideas stuck.  

* * * * * * *

“There’s like a civil war going on with black people, and there’s two sides: black people, and there’s niggas,” said Chris Rock in his 1996 routine Niggas vs. Black People. In the routine, nigga is a person quite similar to the nigger of a hundred years earlier – definitely lazy, possibly criminal, and purposely ignorant. But instead of referring to black people generally, nigga referred to people whose behavior ruined the image and daily life of black people.

Rock’s routine was considered controversial for the same reason Richard Pryor’s use of the word and George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television were considered controversial – because at some point nigger had become taboo and an abusive swear word. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, taboo words activate areas of the brain associated with negative emotion. Our brains process these words involuntarily, and they register automatically, with meaning and negative emotion intact. When one engages in abusive swearing, they are calling on the negative emotion automatically evoked by the word to intimidate or humiliate someone. For those of us who don’t embrace neutral or descriptive definitions of taboo words, just hearing abusive swears can be an unpleasant experience.   

When the New York Times Magazine asked Rock in 1997 why he used such a “heavy-duty” word in his routine, he said, “It’s not that heavy-duty. The thing with ‘nigger’ is just that white people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is.” In 1974, Pryor would have agreed with him. When he was asked about his use of profanity, including nigger, in his shows, he responded, “I think that people should say what they feel…. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello…. And when I say white, man, I don’t mean everybody. You know who you are.”

But white people weren’t the only ones complaining. Many black people feel that no one should use it because of its history as a racial slur. But, according to the Washington Post, “As Pryor saw it, ‘nigger’ meant ‘black like me and millions of others, who’ll never get on this stage….’” Rock, Murphy, Carlin, and Pryor would have also argued that this is how people talk in real life. Real life includes a heavy dose of taboo words. (Their observation is correct. English speakers use words like shit and fuck as often as we use words like us and we.)  

Real life is the reason why I eventually stopped using the word. Fourteen year old me wanted to be like his friends. Eighteen year old me wanted to express himself more precisely. Nigger faded as I started to use a larger vocabulary in my everyday speech. It’s nearly vanished now that I spend most of my time around people who never use the word. But it hasn’t disappeared completely – I still listen to hip-hop and only censor myself when certain people are in the room. Mom is grateful.

Elsewhere, Rock eventually retired the routine, saying that racists were beginning to think it was okay to use the word. Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa, saying, “When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.’” Pryor continued, “I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say ‘nigger’ again.”

But nigger isn’t going away any time soon. The more popular a word is, the more likely people are to use it. For example, researchers estimate that it will take 700 years for the past tense of stink (19,191st) to have a 50% chance of transforming from stank (29,866th) to stinked. So, for now, that leaves the question of whether to use nigger a matter of personal preference. The arguments over whether it should be said, and if so who can say it, will continue. In the meantime, the word will continue to evolve.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is supposed to be the ultimate insult. It isn’t. The Serbian phrase yebem ti mrutvo dete u ladno dupe (eбем ти мъртво дете у ладно дупе) is. Nigger’s power comes from the reaction of its intended target, not from an agreed-upon meaning. Its meaning depends on the era, location, and who’s saying it. Ask people to define it. The definition will vary from person to person, if they’re able to define it at all. The best the Merriam-Webster could do was, “Offensive; used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person.”

And as I become fully aware of what I just heard, it clicks. The meaninglessness of the word irks me. His tone is wrong; I expected contempt. And who would say that with all these black people around? I get it – this mother fucker is trolling me.

I only have a few milliseconds left to figure out whether I’m going to respond, and if so, how. Except that I’ve completely turned to face him. I could’ve ignored him but I’m already annoyed at this lazy comedy designed for an audience of one. I can do better than that. I’m going to see if he can. I bet he doesn’t have much else in his arsenal.

I look down to see precisely what kind of idiot I’m dealing with.

“What did you say?” I ask.

“Niggard,” he replies. “From Old Norse. It means ‘stingy.’ Goes back to the 1300s.”

My gaze falls on a set of amused eyes. While the tourists were watching the skies and I was watching traffic, he was watching people as they passed him by. He’s a lay anthropologist, with a Ph.D. in observing the world. He saw the little girl when she started bobbing up and down in front of the old lady, and heard the old lady ask her new friend, “Do you want to dance?” He saw the bus driver exit the bus to buy a CD from the guy selling the reggae, who turned to music down to make the sale. He saw the garbage truck as it rumbled past, smelling like old food. And he saw me rushing to work, and predicted my most probable reaction.

He shifts his attention. I follow the direction of his gaze from me, past his dowdy beard, down a ragged sleeve, to the stained, wrinkled, blue paper cup in his hand.

Three heartbeats pass.

The left side of my mouth arches slightly upward as I nod my head and shrug my shoulders. I reach in my pocket. I give him a dollar and continue walking to work.

“What did you think I said?”

Presentation: “Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion Efforts”

As of April, 900 people have listened to my presentation, Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion EffortsHere’s a brief description:

In 2012, I was running Brooklyn Law School’s student newspaper when the school’s New York Bar Exam pass rate dropped for the third year in a row. No one knew why. I investigated; the answers led to questions about the success and failure of minority students, a master’s degree, and the realization that scientific research could enhance diversity efforts from the LSAT to the partner’s chair. Channeling the River explores psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to learn how we can best channel the river of untapped potential. Here’s a clip:

Channeling the River is available on demand at the Practising Law Institute for $129 until November. There’s various educational credits available for taking the course, including NYS CLE Diversity/Elimination of Bias credit.

Starbucks, Us, and Them

I didn’t know you could trespass in Starbucks. People bring their laptops there. People hold meetings there. One of my friends spent two months studying for the bar exam there. “Sit and stay awhile” embodies Starbucks’ business model. Even those of us who don’t drink tall half-caff soy lattes at 120 degrees know that Starbucks is a place where people come and stay. The idea of overstaying your welcome at Starbucks is absurd. At least McDonald’s warns you that you have 20 minutes to eat.

But then two Black men walked into a Starbucks. The manager said they needed to be paying customers to use the bathroom (a problem I’ve never encountered). They thought nothing of it and sat down to wait for the third member of their party. As they waited, the manager called police to complain that they were trespassing. Someone recorded the incident. Members of the public threatened to protest. In response to the bad press, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for one day to train its employees about unconscious biases, losing about $12 million in the process. That was a brilliant public relations move.

But a one-day training will lose to millions of years of evolution.

Blink your eyes. That’s about how long it takes for your brain to categorize someone by social status, gender, or race. Even with few clues, we easily group people into “Us” and “Them.” This process starts early – infants learn to recognize faces that are the same race as their guardians (including different-race adoptive parents) easier than faces of other races. By age four, kids group people by race and gender. As long as the categories seem important, our brains can group people according to the weakest of connections, turning meaningless attributes into meaningful differences.

Dividing people into Us and Them is not a conscious process. It is emotional and automatic. When we meet a new person for the first time, we experience intuition and emotions. Then, we devise justifications for our feelings, convincing ourselves that we rationally thought out why we feel the way we do toward an individual or group. In the meantime, whether we classify someone as “Us” or “Them” influences how we act toward that person.

How do you know when someone is one of “Us?” Is the chicken and rice dish common to your group tastier than other kinds of chicken and rice dishes? Would you and others you know acoustic guitar, piano, horns, or a’cappella vocals to lead your favorite version of Yesterday? Do the pundits you watch on television have the best solutions for social problems? If you answer yes to any of these, then you’ll likely consider others who agree with you an “Us.” If you answer no, then you’ve probably grouped others who disagree with you as “Them.” Of course, there are multiple groups we can pull “Uses” from – home, school, work, religious group, Yankee fans, soccer moms – and while some overlap, others have nothing to do with each other.

Simply put, we think better of “Uses” than we do of “Thems.” We treat “Uses” better, too. Members of our group are honest and trustworthy. Members of their group are threatening and angry. We are loyal to members of our group, playing favorites with them and expecting the same in return. We empathize with our group members, treating members of our group as individuals rather than as part of a simple, homogenous mass of people. Indeed, elites in Ancient Rome, Imperial China, Medieval England, and the antebellum South all viewed slaves as “simple, childlike, and incapable of independence.”

It is worth noting again that our brains divide people into “Us” and “Them” automatically, before we are aware that it’s happening, and in absence of bad intent. A one-day training isn’t going to stop this process. But perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Starbucks undertook the training on the idea that our unconscious preferences dictate our conscious actions. Scientists aren’t quite sure this is the case. Our brains take action not only in the short time it takes to register a preference, but after a few hundred more milliseconds (note – we still haven’t reached one second yet) other parts of the brain that dampen our threat response start to activate. This continuing development is part of the reason six-year olds will openly state their preferences about who they like to spend time with, but ten-year olds are more careful about what feelings they share. People are more likely express unconscious racial prejudices if they have poor frontal executive control (executive functions are processes that help us control behavior) or if they have just spent their executive resources.

Indeed, the question of whether one can predict behavior based on unconscious racial preferences has been the subject of a 12-year debate between scientists. At issue is Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. This tool tests one’s reaction times between pairs of words. People generally have shorter reaction times between words they associate with one another (like ice cream and yummy) and longer reaction times between words they don’t associate with one another (like tires and yummy). Over many iterations, the test is said to show one’s unconscious preferences. For many people, the test has become an easy way to determine how racist they are on the inside, and by extension how racist our society is. Applied to Starbucks, this means that the manager was implicitly biased against the two gentlemen, and acting on that bias, proceeded to call the police. Since the problem is simple and straightforward, so is the solution – just train people out of it and there will be fewer incidents.

But science is hard. Scientists (except those implicitly biased in favor of their own research) consider ideas to be true only if different people can repeat the same test under similar conditions and get the same results. In the case of the IAT, much of this work does not live up to scientific standards that would allow most scientists to say that this tool accurately predicts human behavior. As a result, we know that people treat others they consider part of an out-group worse than members of an in-group, but we don’t have a way to measure it. Additionally, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that we know how to do what’s being proposed in the media and by Starbucks – determine whether someone held an unconscious preference because of their actions.

Besides, simply telling people that they have unconscious biases against people of other races and that they are likely to act in a racist manner because of it robs a person of agency. After all, if this is something I can’t change, why would I try? Perhaps Starbucks could create a more robust training, in coordination with police and psychologists, to help its employees determine which customers are potential threats. This way, a future manager might not consider that two people sitting at a table are trespassing. Or, Starbucks could stop letting people hang out in its shops…

Works Referenced

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One Insanely Simple Thing You Can do to Help Your Kids in School

Let’s imagine for the next few minutes that you’re about to have a baby. Let’s also imagine that you want to give your baby the biggest possible advantage in school a few years from now, but you don’t have a lot of money to spare. What can you do?

The insanely simple answer? Talk with your kids. For example:

From birth, your baby’s brain acts like a jigsaw puzzle made of sponges, soaking in information and making connections to what it already knows. As your baby is exposed to more information, it learns more about the world. When you talk to and later converse with your child, he or she learns vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and makes connections between various concepts. Your child brings this base of experience to school, which helps predict how well your child will do in school.

In a two-and-a-half-year study [automatic PDF download here] that examined these connections, researchers found vast differences in the number of words children heard their parents use. On the low end, children heard an average of 616 words per hour. On the high end, children heard 2,153 words per hour. By age three, this accumulated to a difference of 30 million words. When researchers visited these children again at age 9 or 10, they found strong associations between then number of words heard in the first few years and performance on language tests.

That’s right, the simple, free act of speaking to and around your kids can impact their performance in school years later.

Here’s where things get tricky – what do you do if you’re someone who holds the mistaken belief that only teachers can teach our kids? First, keep in mind that our children start life not only equipped to learn, but are actively trying to learn. In their first few years of life, children spend most of their time with their parents. During that time, they learn so much more than we imagine – right from wrong, what to eat, how to keep themselves clean, and a variety of other useful skills. They all improve with experience, and you can give your kids this experience.

Originally, I was going to answer the question of “how” with a joke about creating a “spoken words counted” app. To my surprise, they already exist. Since that’s not an option, I’ll go directly to my real advice – ask people and organizations who work with parents on how to speak with their kids. Organizations such as the Thirty Million Words Initiative help parents learn to how to teach language to their kids. Several organizations help teach parents how to read with their kids.

Of course, how much we speak with our kids is only one factor that influences our children’s success. But it’s one that is free, and is in our complete control.

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How to Work Smarter

Today, I invite you to take the Beat Your Brain Challenge™! The rules are simple: don’t think of something you’re good at! Seriously, that’s it! Don’t think of anything you’re better than most people at. Don’t consider how long you’ve been doing that thing, or how you started doing that thing in the first place.

If you’re like most people, you’re now thinking of something you’re good at and how you got there. Congratulations! Keep that in mind for a minute. If you somehow avoided thinking of something you’re good at, please take a moment, call and ask someone who knows you well, and then come back to this post.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s focus on how we get good at things – study and practice, lots of it.[1] Our brains are like plastic, capable of being molded through time and effort. When we try new things, our neurons make new connections. These connections eventually become efficient enough that we can complete a task without much conscious effort.[2] Stop using the skill for an extended period and connections atrophy, or are used by the brain for other tasks.

We all perfect new skills this way, as evidenced partly by your memory of how you got good at something.[3] Further evidence comes from findings that (1) people who perform at expert level needed approximately 10,000 hours[4] of deliberate practice[5] to get there and (2) people with an average affinity for a task but who put in a lot of work will outperform those with a natural affinity for the same task but who put in little work. If you accept the Ask a Friend Challenge™, I suspect you will find that all your friends objectively put a lot of work into getting good at whatever they are good at, too.

“Objectively” in the prior sentence is important – subjectively, we mistakenly tend to associate the word “work” with things we dread doing. This dread can be so strong that we will look for shortcuts – or simply not even try – to avoid the unpleasant experience of “work.” In fact, we build skills regardless of whether we enjoy the tasks that build them. And since many subjectively lousy tasks are also important life skills, how can we convince our kids, students, and mentees to engage in necessary skill-building work?

If I may be so bold, might I suggest the Compliment Challenge™? How does it work, you ask? First, take time to explain to your kids, students, or mentees that our brains grow with work, and work leads to success. Then, instead of complimenting people for being smart (or worse, insulting them by calling them stupid), compliment them on how hard they have worked. These factors have been shown to help inspire learners to put more effort into study, with a resulting increase in performance.

The title of this piece implied that I’d be offering shortcuts, and since “working harder” is a kind of a long shortcut, I also offer the following: (1) don’t multitask; (2) cut off the internet when you’re studying; and (3) put your phone in another room. Multitasking and internet use distract you from your work. If you don’t have them available to you, you can concentrate on what you’re doing, finish your work faster, and get back to the more pleasurable things in life.

Thanks so much for playing today! Good luck with your learning, or helping someone else to learn! I’ll see you soon in my next post!

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[1] Extra points for anyone who got the Doctor Strange reference.

[2] After all, when’s the last time you had to think about how to move your mouth when you speak?

[3] Savants, who can perform a task at expert level with little training exist, but they are rare. It also seems to be the case that their expert skill set is limited to one or two things. Everything else, they must learn.

[4] A bit over a year if you could skip sleep, food, and life. Closer to ten once real life is factored in.

[5] Deliberate practice differs from just practice. The term indicates an intense form of practice, characterized by detailed feedback from a mentor and attention to detail by the practitioner. Imagine a singer practicing a single note for an hour, then going to a vocal coach to discuss the note for another hour. This is not the only factor that leads to expert performance, but it’s a definite contributor.

How to Beat the Bar Exam (or any other test)

Please click here to read an updated, shorter version of this article. 

As I write this, thousands of freshly minted JDs are just starting the 10-week slog of studying for the bar exam. By the end of the study period, these people will come out of exile, grateful to see sunlight again and not wanting to read another printed word for the next three months. This post is in honor of them.

In my last post, I offered organizations tips to increase the success of their diversity recruitment efforts. This post is aimed at those they want to recruit – current and future students. One thing all students have in common is that taking tests is necessary to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Another thing you have in common is the wide variety of things you can do to help increase your chances of getting the results you want.

We don’t usually use a wide variety of strategies to help us pass tests. Instead, we tend to stick with what has worked in the past – often repetitive reading to remember just enough information to pass. This information is usually forgotten as quickly as it was remembered, with the student believing that it has no further use once the test is over.

But one of the reasons people become teachers and professors is because they believe the information they’re sharing is not only important, but worthwhile. This is especially true of foundational classes, where the information learned is needed to understand more difficult concepts in later classes.

Therefore, it is often worthwhile to understand new material not only to pass a test, but also in a way that allows you to apply to future tests, different classes, and life outside the classroom. To do this, or, as per the title of this post, do well on a major test such as the bar exam, you have to use multiple strategies.

You can use the following advice to prepare for any test, but I will often reference the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and bar exam because I’ve taken both tests, and it’s easy to use them as examples. Besides, anything I discuss here can be applied to any test you will take from this point forward. So, what’s the first thing we need to know?

Step 1: Understand what is expected of you

a. What kind of test is this?

The first thing you need to determine if you’re taking a test in the United States is whether the test is standardized. This is easy. Are multiple people in various locations taking the same test at the same time? If yes, congratulations, you’re taking a standardized test!

There aren’t many good ways to compare students who received their education at different schools. Standardized tests fill this role. For example, the combination of an undergraduate student’s GPA and LSAT score is highly predictive of how well that student will do in the first year of law school. (Prospective law students: note that this combination only predicts first year success, or more precisely how prepared you were for the work when you entered law school.)

One advantage of taking a standardized test is that the organizations running these tests tend to have all kinds of useful resources for prospective examinees. Among other things, you may be able to find subject guides, old tests, and answers to those old tests. Reading through these resources and using them to study can let you know exactly what to expect on the test. If you can find them, you can use them to your advantage. I strongly suggest checking.

One complaint people make about standardized tests is that schools will adjust to changes in standards by “teaching to the test.” Since I’m just talking about what you can do to do well, that’s a subject for another time.

b. What information am I expected to understand?

Additionally, some people mistakenly believe that standardized tests including the LSAT can’t be studied for. I think whoever started that rumor was watching that episode of Star Trek where the testing authority wanted to see how students dealt with fears they didn’t know they had. Of course all tests can be studied for. You just have to find out what subject matter is being tested, and then study the appropriate subjects.

In the case of the LSAT, the headings tell you the subject matter. Three sections deal with logic. Logic is usually neatly tucked away in the philosophy or mathematics departments. Oversimplification: logic is a thinking system used to solve problems. We use logic, but it’s more often the case that we use arguments that don’t work to try and win arguments. If I say the light is green and your counter with, “but it used to be yellow,” you didn’t win the argument, you changed the subject. You may even feel emotionally satisfied with your “win,” but in this specific case, you would have had to prove that the light is not green now, rather than talking about what the light was before. Learning how to use logic helps us to avoid these kinds of false wins.

Logic also helps us to build legal arguments, which fail miserably without it. It is for this reason that the LSAT tests one’s ability to use logic. But if you don’t know classes exist on this subject, aren’t required to take it, or don’t take it at random, you won’t even know it exists. With no foundation or experience in a subject it’s hard to do well on a test of the subject. But once you know what you’re expected to understand, you can start working on your objective.

c. What exactly is my objective, anyway?

Depends on the test. Is the test pass/fail or does it compare you to others? The bar exam, for example, is pass/fail. When I took the New York test, you needed 665 out of 1000 points, or a D+ to pass. To the best of my knowledge, all bar exams require a similar level of competency for one to pass.


In contrast, tests like the LSAT test your skill relative to other people taking the test. I don’t want to bore you with a dissertation on statistical transformation methods, so let me explain using the LSAT as an example. The test has 100 questions. The average of all scores is about 50 questions right. Most examinees get near 50 questions right – let’s pretend that the range is from 40 – 60. This range would be where you place a bet if you’re choosing a student at random. Fewer people will get below 40 or above 60, and even fewer will get below, say, 20, or above 80. Needless to say, the more questions you get right, the better you understand the subject.

On a test like this, your objective depends on what you want. Some schools will accept a person who gets half of the questions right. Others will only take students who get 90 – 100 right. Information regarding what students a school or organization accepts is usually available. If you’re taking a test like the LSAT, find this information first so you can have a goal to work toward. Setting goals increases your chance of success.

d. Got it. By the way, why am I taking this test?

Usually, we answer this question “to get into [business, law, med] school.” That’s not what I mean. If someone is asking you to take a test, there’s a reason for it. Admittedly, this reason can sometimes be hard to find. But understanding why a school or association thinks the test in question is important can be useful. As I mentioned above, the LSAT tests the basic skills needed to do well in law school. Schools choose students from a narrow range of GPA and LSAT score because people learn best when they learn with people of similar ability. Too far ahead or behind and the outlying student is not well served by the school.

In contrast, states started administering bar exams for reasons unique to each state. Common themes for instituting bar exams are concerns about incompetent lawyers and a variety of standards across a state. This means that lawyers in one part of a state had to meet higher standards that lawyers in another part of the state. Pennsylvania even used to have a weird situation where a lawyer could only practice in the county the lawyer was admitted to practice in. So, if your client had legal needs in another county, the client might have to find a new lawyer.

In any case, knowing why the test was instituted in the first place gives you an idea of why you’re being forced asked to take a test. Of course, some people disagree with using tests as a gateway to a career, especially where schooling can cost upwards of $150,000, but the arguments for and against are a subject for another time.

With these preliminary factors out of the way, I turn to

Step 2: Studying harder by studying smarter

Usually, when you hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder,” someone is about to tell you about an amazing new shortcut to make your life easier – for $19.95. I’m giving this information away for free, so I’ll be telling you about amazing ways to learn that actually work – but I’m happy to take donations.

By “studying smarter,” I mean that you can use what is known about how the brain works to increase the effectiveness of your study sessions. This allows you to learn more information in a shorter time, giving you a better chance of getting a higher score on your test.

a. So, what’s going on in our heads?

First, an extreme oversimplification: we learn and remember new things because the neurons in our brain make, and then strengthen, connections to other neurons in our brain. This occurs on a surface level through repeated exposure, and on a deeper level through trying to remember and use the information. At the deepest level, you make connections between the new information and other things you’ve learned, allowing you to build on top of your previous knowledge.

Probably not the kind of connections I was talking about

For example, when you first started walking, your parents told you to stay away from something hot. But, being two years old and all, you had no idea what they were talking about and laughed at them while they tried to stop you from experiencing “hot.” And as they ran to stop you, you put your hand on the radiator and started crying as you finally understood the definition of the word “hot.” Later, as young kids do, you repeated the word “hot” repeatedly anytime you looked at the radiator, your parents confirming that the radiator was indeed hot.

But that isn’t all you learned about “hot.” It comes from the sun, the stove, car engines. It can keep you warm, make you sweat, cook food, iron clothes. These connections between your idea of the word “hot” and the various things it’s connected to helped to cement the idea of “hot” in your brain.

b. That’s cool and all, but how does that information help me study?

The key thing here is that attempts to use information helps cement ideas in your head. With that in mind, you can add retrieval practice to your study to give your brain the best chance of remembering what you’re supposed to be learning. Need an example? Here’s my daily study schedule for the bar exam. You can adjust the hours according to your needs:

Retrieval Practice (4 hours, with one 15-minute break)

  • Write one essay from a past bar exam, open book and untimed
  • Attempt to answer 30 multiple choice questions from past bar exams (six areas of law were tested, so this was five questions each)
  • Review flash cards (see below)

Lunch (1 hour)

Reading, aka “Studying” (6 hours, two subjects per day, with one break)

For those unfamiliar with bar exam study, yes, that’s right, I studied ten hours per day almost every day for ten weeks. And there were 27 subjects on my exam. Here’s the rationale for each of these decisions:


I had no choice. Out of the 27 subjects on my exam, only six of the major topics were required classes in law school. I took those six three years before, and without use, I would only remember some of what I was taught. So, even though I was enrolled in a bar exam prep course, I still had to read a semester’s worth of a subject to be fully prepared for one or two questions on the topic. Most subjects had enough information that they could not be read in less than three hours. As a result, I read for six hours a day.


Writing the essays served two purposes: (1) improving my skills to the point that writing was automatic, which left me more time to consider the legal issues at hand; and (2) using the legal rules in context, so that I could remember them better. Fighting to learn information, in this case by digging though pages and pages to make sure my answer was complete, helps you to retain information better. Additionally, this allowed me study subjects that weren’t part of my reading that day.

The bar exam prep company gave us essays that they made up for us to practice on. I skipped those and went straight for the old NY bar exam essays. After all, NYS provided years of old essays on its website (Note: NY has since moved over to the UBE. You can find old UBE essays here), and it made more sense to use the real thing rather than something that someone else made up. This gave me direct experience with the kind of essays I’d be writing on the exam.

Writing the essays untimed gives me another advantage – no additional pressure because I’m trying to beat a clock. There would be plenty of time for beating the clock on the day of the test.

If you have time, find someone to give you detailed feedback on your work, so you can write the next essay with that feedback in mind. This is part of the idea behind deliberate practice, which I’ll have to explain in more detail at another time.

Finally, writing an essay every day allowed me to see my improvement, and celebrate small wins. For me, a small win was any noticeable improvement. Understand the form of the essay better? Win! Got through the essay a little faster? Win! The first essay took me about an hour to write. The final essay took me about 20 minutes to write. But celebrating with each noticeable improvement (about once a week or once every two weeks) let me know I was on track, and inspired me to stay on task.

Multiple choice

The year I took the bar, I had to answer a total of 250 multiple choice questions. Therefore, seeing what they might look like was also important. Here, I looked at the question, tried to figure out what the correct answer was and why, and then chose an answer. When I saw whether I was right or wrong, I went back and read the reasons why all of the answers were right and wrong.

Again, this allowed me to cover multiple subjects that I might not have been reading up on that day, celebrate small wins, and gauge my progress. Here, I was shooting to get 75% of the questions correct, because that would mean I wouldn’t have to take the bar exam if I wanted to get a law license for two or three other states. Also, the higher I scored on this section, the lower I could score on the other sections and still pass. Again, setting a goal helps you achieve what you want.

Flash cards

The old school, hand-written flash card is the ultimate retrieval practice tool. First, you write down the information you want to remember on one side, and what it refers to on the other side. Writing things down on paper helps your brain to remember things. So does trying to remember what you wrote.

Next, you take either side of a card, and try to remember what’s on the other side. Over time, your brain makes those connections, and it’s easier for you to remember what’s on either side of the card.

I had to deal with 27 different subjects, though, so this could have easily gotten out of hand. Therefore, I limited the number of cards to a maximum of 25 per subject. I further limited the content of the cards to things I didn’t know or couldn’t easily remember. After all, is there a point in putting a lot of effort into what you already know? Finally, because even with these limitations, going through all the cards could take over an hour, I found a way to review the smallest number of cards on any given day. This is called the Leitner system.

To do this, you’ll need three boxes (or bags – it doesn’t matter, as long as you can separate the cards).

On day 1, review all of the cards. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Don’t remember it? Put it back in box 1. Do this every day until day 7 (Note: day 7 is arbitrary. I used day 2 here).

On day 7, pull out box 1 and box 2. Start with box 2. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 1. When you’re finished, review the cards in box 1 that you haven’t looked at yet. Do this every day until day 28 (Note: day 28 is also arbitrary. I used day 3 here).

On day 28, pull out all three boxes. Start with box 3. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Continue with the cards in boxes 2 and 1 as before. Still having trouble? See below:


Continuing in this fashion will help you reinforce your memory only when you need to – when you’re at the edge of forgetting. It will also help you concentrate on learning only the things you don’t already know, which saves you time. Along those lines, when reading you can also skim parts of subjects you know very well, allowing you to concentrate on reading the things you don’t know very well.

Note that all of this is in contrast to what many of us usually do to prepare for tests – read entire passages over and over in an attempt to memorize information. As you may remember from your seventh grade Spanish class – or more to the point, not remember – simply rereading information helps you memorize for the short term, not learn. If you want to learn, you have to be in Spain, at the store, looking for cookies but not knowing how to say the word. You then run down the hill to the store at the bottom of the hill, pick up a pack of Oreos and ask the clerk in Spanish how to say cookies. When he responds galletas and you run back up the hill to tell the other cashier that you’ve figured out that you were talking about galletas and he responds that he didn’t have what you were looking for anyway…that memory will never fade.

And as an FYI – learning doesn’t feel like anything – other than a big headache (to me) as your brain tries to make connections between the one concept you’re trying to learn and its applications. We mistakenly expect learning to feel a certain way, but it doesn’t. We also expect to remember everything on the first try, but we don’t. We only think we do, and we are rarely tested on that assumption.

Rest, the real hero

Rest is important. We need rest. Our brains need rest. Did I say “rest?”

As you can see, I included rest periods in my schedule. I also included rest outside of my schedule. I left early when it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to take in any new information. I stayed home when I woke up and my brain told me, “no!” I slept well every night, and took what was probably a total of two hours a day to walk around, eat food, crack jokes, and talk to people.

Your brain needs this downtime to build connections, store information, and prepare you for the next task. Without it, things go haywire.

Unfortunately, too many examinees make the mistake of not getting rest, or cramming all night rather than letting their brains do the work that they do. It’s understandable because that’s what’s been passed down to us. However, we’ve since learned that rest is essential for memory formation and brain development.

So, if I didn’t say it already, get some rest!

You didn’t mention study groups

I haven’t mentioned study groups because I didn’t use study groups while taking the bar. It was only after I took the test that I learned the best way to use a study group – everyone in the room should have different strengths. Those who are unclear on some issue that their friend understands well try to explain, and the ones who know clarify. This is so much better than just sitting in silence in a room full of other people, laughing from time to time about random stuff.

This Calvin and Hobbes strip accurately depicts my experience in study groups.

What about multitasking?

We’re not good at it. Cut off the music, TV, email, internet, and phone. Do one thing at a time.

Step 3: Preventing test anxiety before it starts

Please take a minute to compare the various things I’ve discussed so far. Hopefully, you will see what binds them all together – these are all things you have control over.

Anxieties, however, concern things we either don’t have control over or think we don’t have control over. Two oversimplified examples: “I can’t control what’s going to happen to me next” = learned helplessness. “People like me don’t do well on this kind of test” = stereotype threat. In both of these psychological phenomena, a person believes (for different reasons) that what’s about to happen next is out of their control for some reason or another.

As noted above, the interesting thing is that people can experience these phenomena even when things are actually in their control, causing our stress response to kick in. Constant stress, even when it’s psychological, can make it easier to associate different factors with fear and turn them into long-term memories. When this memory is activated, we can become anxious even if there’s no objective reason to be. And to make matters worse, this process has to be unlearned, but the same factors that make fear associations easy to learn make them hard to unlearn.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve come to believe “people like me don’t do well on this test.” It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, female, or a high school sports star, every group you identify with is subject to some version of this belief. You may start to prime yourself for failure in advance, saying something like “this test is biased against us.” For the record, this is a real biased test. Please take ten minutes to see what it feels like. Seriously. I’ll wait.

With this priming in mind, you may not study as hard as you would otherwise, ignoring all of the tests you passed since kindergarten, and all of the factors noted above that are completely in your control. Even if you do study well and are fully prepared, incorrectly assessing the situation can cause you to second guess yourself, failing a test you would otherwise pass, because you thought some immutable characteristic about yourself was important when the only thing truly important was how much work you put in to understand the material.

So, to prevent anxiety, you have to remember how much is in your control, and how much you’ve done with that control. You may not have control over the time, place or content, but you definitely have control over how well-prepared you are before you take most tests.

There is one caveat to all of this – losing a loved one, breaking up with a significant other, or having an undiagnosed learning disability can derail your success, even when you’re fully prepared. I’m sure that people pass under these circumstances, but the first two definitely take away from your mental energy.


At some point, we all have to take tests. These tips got me through 24 hours of testing over three days to pass two bar exams. I trust they can help you, too.

UPDATE: I am now offering Bar Exam tutoring services! Click here to learn more.

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