There has been no shortage of words spoken and printed on the primary subjects of this piece. I offer my voice now to highlight some of the important messages I received.
First, Sandy Banks describes findings from a highly respected Stanford researcher, Jennifer Eberhardt, which highlight that deep, subconscious stereotypes exist in the majority of us, regardless of race. These stereotypes can be triggered subliminally, heighten fear responses, and result in deadly reactions against black people. Of this, there is really no question. Banks’ December 5th LA Times article on how “police expectations damage black men’s realities” is an important starting place for understanding how we all may be subject ot this very upsetting and damaging phenomena of internalized, subconscious stereotyping.
Caryl Rivers then offered an op-ed in the LA Times on December 11th which describes how “confirmation bias” a long history of helping whites demonize blacks.” This article provides additional context for how unconscious bias and stereotypes are triggered based on the tendency to “interpret or remember information in a way that confirms what we already believe.” This type of bias helps explain why even though “as Harvard sociologist Charles Ogletree has pointed out, ‘ninety-nine percent of black people don’t commit crimes, yet we see the images of black people day in, day out, and the impression is that they’re all committing crimes.'” The essential take away from this work is that we will never resolve the real divisions that exit between blacks and whites in the U.S. until we recognize and confront the power of confirmation bias.
One result of confirmation bias is the belief among many white people that the U.S. has effectively ended systematic and institutionalized forms of racial discrimination. Paul Gorski’s early December blog post highlights the irrefutable evidence that our society remains one in which “white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness.” His offering, in response to angry white voices on social media, helps us see that the very structure of our society continues to breed and maintain inequity and that its systemic nature is not simply a product of individual bigotry.
The need to attend to the systemic issues, as Paul Gorski does, is essential. And in order to truly get underneath the way pervasive, subconsious bias arises and is maintained through institutional structures, we need to each delve deeply enough into our own psyches to honestly evalute how we continue to be affected by bias. Debby Irvine does this on a regular basis. Her blog post explaining her shock as she witnessed herself rise as a white male approached her (as a show of respect) at a conference is illustrative. What she realizes is not simply that she gave respoect ot a white male (which is fine), but she reacted differently to others she encountered earlier the same day. This is the point. Subconscious bias is just that…below our level of conscious control. It is essential to consider that this same impulse to treat one person with increased deference and respect works in the opposite direction. This impulse come from the same kind of bias that causes the split-second, anxiety-fueled decision by some police to pull the trigger against a black man when it is not absolutely required. All of us who are not in law enforcement should consider ourselves forunate that our unconscious bias is unlikely to prove deadly.
It was Debby herself who alerted me to a useful TED Talk by Verna Myers who recently spoke about how to overcome our biases. Besides the culminating message letting us know that we need to boldly walk toward our bias, she offered a specific (and rather profound) first step for those of us who are white. She said, basically, that we need to stop worrying about being “good” people and we need to start focusing instead on being “real.” So, what does she mean by that? Well, the 18 minute speech is worth listening to in full. But, at the core, what I found essential is that she is alerting us that if we only focus on whether or not we are “good”, then we will be forever resistant to the unsettling question that needs to be asked…”how does Ferguson live wihtin us?” In other words, where in me does a fear of black men reside? Where in me is there unconscious bias?
Why are those questions so essential? In additional to our personal actions, subconscious bias also allows news events to go unexamined. Take a recent event in Los Angeles for example. A military-grade shipment of arms was recently sent to and accepted by the Los Angeles Unified School district (LAUSD) police. From what I understand, the initial delivery included a tank and grenade launcher. Wow! What makes any of us believe that it is even remotely appropriate for school police to be armed with military equipment? Close your eyes and imagine a scenario that would warrant the use of military equipment on a school campus. Who is in the scene? What racial background are the people in the scene? A close friend of mine, one who is working hard to combat subconscious bias, has written a song called “Listen” about this situation.This song highlights the need for a vision that replaces the fear of youth of color with an embrace of their gifts and inherent potential.
Thankfully, there are many who are responding to the anger, protests, and confusion unleashed by the recent grant jury deciisons by taking action to learn more about oureslves and each other, an esential step in breaking down unconscious bias. After all, we have to first learn about our bias and raise it to the level of conscious awareness before we will ever be able to learn techniques to eliminate its effects. A Decmeber 9th Colorlines article called “The White Conversation on Race” highlights the fact that there are many whites in St. Louis who are seeking conversations about undoing racism with each other.
One of the links within the article is to a CBS Evening News clip of a Witnessing Whiteness Dialogue Group. This group has been onging in St. Louis for the last four years. What I love most about this clip is that it offers a positive example of how white people can come together to learn and grow. It’s not about segregating ourselves and it’s not about guilt. This work is about taking responsibility for understanding how racism continues to play a pervasive role in our society, and it helps us learn how to take action (both within ourselves and with each other) to combat its effects. Look closely and you’ll see the dialogue participants are holding my book. Am I thrilled to see this? Yes, of course.
You see, during these last couple of months circumstances have prevented me from participating as fully in the conversation about these issues as I would have liked. So, yes, I was thrilled to learn that throughout it all, something positive was coming from my work. And that’s the point I’d like to end by making: We never know how our voice will affect people. We don’t know how far and wide the message will extend. But every once in a while, if we keep doing the work of consciousness-raising AND taking action for justice, someday we just might get a message back that indicates people are positively affected during a critical time. We can make a difference. Each of our voices matter.