I am a person who is involved in social justice work. AND I have racial biases. There, I said it. These two statements do not sound congruent. They have the appearance of being polar opposites but when I am genuinely honest with myself, they are not. To illustrate how acceptance of my own biases materialized, I must start with explaining the catalyst for my awareness.
I was picking up my 15 year old daughter from school a couple of years ago and we were having our usual conversation about her day. She began to tell me about a school assembly presented by Jamie Utt, who has since become a mentor and dear friend of mine. She described his presentation as a lesson in examining our own racial biases. I was thrilled her school was taking a bit more progressive stance by presenting this type of program and I was hoping the racist kids at her school were paying close attention.
My daughter began to list some examples of prejudices we may have without being cognizant of their presence and how Jamie’s fundamental point was that change must start from within. I have since had the opportunity to participate in his presentation and found it to be very powerful and compelling. However, that was not my first reaction when my daughter presented this somewhat unfamiliar concept to me.
My initial reaction was that Jamie must be talking about other folks because there was no way that I had any hidden racial biases. I am all about equality. I loathed racism and discrimination and I was disgusted by slavery along with the horrific mistreatment of Black folks since that time. I am white, and so is my daughter who attended this presentation; however my youngest daughter is biracial. She would be yet another justification I used for the impossibility of me harboring any racial prejudice.
Around this time, I had just begun researching Black History and was gradually realizing how much inequality still existed. However, I had neither an understanding of racism on a systemic level nor an understanding of the depth of its lasting effects. For the most part, I still viewed racism as individual acts perpetrated in an overtly racist fashion, by racists – which I was not. Thankfully, this sequence of events took place at a time in my life when I was thirsting for knowledge and truth. I was willing to throw out all I thought I knew and listen to a totally new concept.
As I explored Jamie’s website and writings, I started to wonder if there might be some validity to his viewpoint. So what exactly is an implicit bias? An implicit bias is simply a biased attitude or stereotype held at an unconscious level.
For the vast majority of people, acknowledging and admitting our own racial bias is extremely troublesome. Being confronted with the fact that we, as white people, have racial prejudice tends to elicit intense defensiveness. Most of us are quick to deny their presence for fear of being labeled “racist”. I, personally, do not want to acknowledge that they exist within me and I certainly do not want to admit them to others. That counts especially for the people in my social justice circle. But as it happens many times in life, the value of doing so outweighs the discomfort I may feel.
And so here comes the hardest part for most of us – I had to take a hard look at myself. Generally, this is not a pleasant experience and this was no exception. What I discovered meant that distancing myself from the blatant racist was not as simple as my past ideation would have me believe. For most of my life I was confident that I made no judgments based on skin color as a result of being spoon fed the notion of colorblindness while growing up. However, as I began to grasp the idea that my internalized biases affect my thoughts and subsequently my actions, I realized it was imperative that I face my own implicit bias.
I started paying attention to and scrutinizing my thoughts and reactions when I encountered people of color, specifically Black people. The reason I have such a focus on Black folks is not to detract from the discrimination that occurs with other races, but for my purposes I was mostly concerned, albeit somewhat selfishly, about how this affected my relationship with my daughter who is part Black.
The first thing revealed to me in this process was my unsolicited fear. Me harboring fear of a Black man who was walking down the street or instinctively taking notice of the whereabouts of my purse in the presence of a Black person. I also observed I did NOT do this when I encountered white people. Intellectually, I knew there was no more likelihood that a Black man was going to accost me than a white man but my instincts to protect myself and my belongings kicked into overdrive when I was in certain situations with Black people. I was appalled and repulsed by this revelation. I despised unearthing this truth about myself. I did not want to see it. And the last thing I wanted to do was admit this to anyone else.
I also discovered that one of my biases was based on the stereotype that Black folks were not as intelligent as whites. Being that I was raised in the Midwest and my contact with Black people was very limited growing up, my source of information came from the images that were portrayed on TV. I love football and I believe many of my stereotypes related to the intelligence factor may stem from watching players in a predominately Black sport being interviewed, and not many of them coming across very intelligently. Or possibly it was from the innumerable sitcoms that seem to have that one jovial, but stupid, Black character. Some of my racial biases have gone away through my interactions with Black people. Some have dissipated. But I cannot claim that all of them have been eliminated.
Implicit bias tests are tests that measure unconscious bias. The scientific research indicates that no matter how consciously committed to equality we may think we are, we can still possess the residual effects of negative stereotypes and prejudice. So where does this prejudice come from?
The negative perception and demonization of African-Americans has been narrated since slavery. Many would argue that slavery has been over for a long time and therefore no lingering effects could be present in today’s society. However, we are only about 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Era. Furthermore, we must be realistic in acknowledging that the Civil Rights Era certainly did not magically remove all the stereotypes we buy into nor did it instantly create a society based on equality. Since the colonization of this country, negative stereotypes have been passed down from generation to generation. I, for one, am not immune just because I now fight for equality.
The message that Blacks are criminals, aggressive, inferior, dumb, etc. is still very prevalent in the media, news, community and even within our very own families. We are exposed to racial stereotypes so regularly that they become the norm to us. The way these stereotypes have entered my subconscious is not my fault. I could stop there and point the blame elsewhere but where does that leave me? It only leaves me with an abundance of unchecked prejudice which is particularly dangerous if I claim to be fighting for equality. How I have been affected by this inundation of stereotypes may not be my fault but I do have a responsibility. Just as slavery wasn’t my fault, I have a duty to face history head on and recognize how it shaped this country.
I must be willing to acknowledge, accept, and check my biases on a daily basis. I must be vigilant in being on the lookout for these prejudices as they crop up to have any hope of their destruction; or maybe more realistically, their minimization. Is it possible for a white person to grow up in this society and not have any racial prejudice? I sincerely doubt it is and I firmly believe that if we say we don’t hold ANY prejudice, implicit or otherwise, we are not being truly honest with ourselves. It is much easier to point the finger at “those” people and call them racist and ignore our own inherent obstacles. However, I work in social justice. And working in social justice requires us, as white people, to face our own demons first, before we can be of any use to the cause.