Valley Voices

Implicit bias: It shows up in how we pick peaches, and judge people

David Masumoto holds some of his 2019 crop grown on his farm.
David Masumoto holds some of his 2019 crop grown on his farm. Contributed

Every summer I’m judged. The literal fruits of my labor, our organic peaches and nectarines, are unconsciously evaluated, labeled and categorized as good or bad. People conclude my fruits are desirable based on implicit bias: attitudes that influence our actions in an unconscious manner.

We all make judgments whether we know it or not. Many decisions are activated involuntarily without an individual’s awareness or intentions.

forum masumoto mug
David Mas Masumoto

I witness this in a grocery store and certainly in my sales reports: consumers will judge my peaches often solely on size — a bigger peach is perceived as the better peach. Many buyers will also “see” a nectarine that is red as superior to one that is golden or with streaks of yellow. I have battled this notion for decades as I maintain a belief in heirloom fruit varieties, refusing to accept the implicit bias that quality is based solely on physical attributes such size and the color of skin. Our family farm clung to the belief that for some, flavor and taste still mattered.

It’s scary to realize how we judge and are being judged. We see the world through a narrow lens created by experiences and associations not necessarily aligned with our declared beliefs. For example, studies show that in the medical world people unconsciously trust a male doctor more than a female. Or treatment recommendations can be influenced by race — for example, blacks are prescribed painkillers at lower rates than others because of the perception they can better tolerate pain.

We succumb to attitudes because we are creatures of habit. We involuntarily reach for the bigger fruit believing it must be better. Size inflation permeates our consumer world: bigger cars are seen as safer when it’s the driver who is the major factor in accidents. We may perceive the taller political candidate to be a better leader, punishing the shorter men and most female politicians.

We then pick up information that reinforces our cultural training. Because we rarely “test” the flavor between a red nectarine and another variety with yellow and golden background coloration, we never change our perception. How can we know what we don’t know? Our brain seeks the comfort of following the easy path — less energy is required when we do not make comparisons and instead simply do what we’ve always done. So huge, voluptuous peaches always outsell and command a higher price. (Opps, did I too allow my bias to impact word choice — since when is “big” automatically “voluptuous”?) I too fall prey to this behavior, grabbing the larger bananas, searching for the plumper melon and even attracted to the fuller chicken breast (the average size of a full grown marketable chicken in 1920 was 2.5 pounds and today it’s over 6 pounds).

There’s a tendency to divide the social world into groups — us versus them; we behave like fans of a sports team. This trumps rational deliberation. We don’t need to think and explore because we instinctively treat in-groups members with care and foreigners with caution. Once my old-time peaches with their smaller size and golden colors fall out of favor, they can never reclaim their status and their flavor is devalued. They appear puny and substandard. They look alien and thus labeled as misfits. My fruits are outcasts, exiled and out of the mainstream. Welcome to a new world of produce tribalism.

Every summer harvest forces me to re-examine the implicit bias that permeates our world. This annual reminder makes me question: if produce is judged unconsciously, how about people? Countless issues are reframed with our implicit biases and explain the struggles in our world today. And I thought it was just about my peaches.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com
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