Mahzarin R. Banaji. Social psychologist. Celebrated researcher. Esteemed Harvard University professor. We recognize the face of brilliance in you.
Even as a five-year old in Secunderabad, India, you defied stereotypes, teaching four-year olds to write, at home in your mother’s school. She was always a step ahead in her vision for your future. You pictured life as a secretary, but she insisted on college, at least a semester. With that kick-start you were academia-borne, from the liberal arts at Nizam College to general psychology at JNU in Delhi. Then, on the train home for the holidays, you bought five volumes of The Handbook of Social Psychology for five dollars, mostly because you couldn’t resist the deal. One volume in and you knew that this particular science, with its focus on process and experiment, was meant for you. “There are few moments,” you say, as if to each of us, “when a course of action presents itself with such clarity that there is nothing to do but pursue it.”
Next steps: a Ph.D. from the pre-eminent program at Ohio State, a University of Washington post-doc, and then 15 years at Yale, to pursue and put your stamp on the field of unconscious bias—you call the teaching award you earned there your most prized recognition, and there have been many. In 2002, you were invited to Harvard by now-president Drew Faust, to continue your revolutionary work and your undeniable influence on scores of students, mentoring undergraduates and young women in science… many just like us.
You explore social cognition, identify the consequences of favoritism, and reveal the startling power of mental processes that occur outside our awareness. In 2013, you co-authored the acclaimed book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, illuminating the way we think about our prejudices and our decisions. Your suggestion that we direct some effort to those beyond our circle of familiarity is a lesson worth learning for us all.
And you learned lessons that you now pass on: credit your mentors, persevere in the face of criticism, and never hesitate to turn long-held perceptions upside down. For this and more, Professor Banaji, on behalf of my alma mater and my classmates poised for greatness, it is an honor to present you with the 2014 Barnard Medal of Distinction, along with our intentional, impartial, and very conscious thanks.