Who Me, Racist?

Yes, you. And us too. Let’s talk about implicit bias.

(Editor’s note: you don’t have to be white to read this but it helps)

No wonder we’re all so divided. As recently as the 1950’s, 95% of Americans surveyed said they opposed interracial marriage (which btw was illegal in many states until 1967). This was also a time of enforced separation. Of blatant “Whites Only” policies in clubs, restaurants and suburban communities across the country. In the South, schools, parks, cemeteries, waiting rooms, water fountains, public transportation  – public spaces were legally (and often violently) segregated depending on the color of your skin. That’s just how it was.

Then the rules changed. Thrown together whether we liked it or not, the easiest solution was to pretend not to see color. “If we don’t mention race, then it doesn’t matter!” So we all kind of agreed to play along, and hope the whole issue went away on its own.

Ignoring racial differences became our country’s plan for integration after Civil Rights. Soon, we’d all absorbed the message: only racists talk about race. The rest of us are colorblind! By the 2000’s, less than 10% of Americans would admit to pollsters they disapproved of interracial marriage.

Funny thing, though: our eyes still see color, whether we admit it or not. We can’t just shut off our capacity to tell one race from another, we’re not robots. Even when we try to will ourselves to ignore race, even if we educate ourselves to say all the “right” words and support all the “fair” laws and vote for politicians who take care to include everyone in their speeches.

Even when we do our very best to scrub racial differences from our minds, our brains go right ahead making all kinds of associations unconsciously, affecting how we think and feel about people. And also how we treat them.

Worse still, because all this is happening under our own radar, we’re naturally resistant to the idea that we’re more racist than we think we are. “I didn’t bring up race, you did!” But how else are we supposed to confront racial inequalities and double-standards in housing, income, healthcare, education, criminal justice…? It’s hard to think of any part of a person’s life that race doesn’t affect somehow.

Philadelphia is one of the country’s most segregated big cities – thanks to explicitly discriminatory laws in the early 20th century that have had major trickle-down consequences still affecting African American communities today. Policies may no longer be overtly racist, but the game is still fixed. And many of us are unconsciously unable to see, even when we’re intentionally trying to look.

Need proof? How about every magic show you’ve ever seen. Optical illusions. That dress that’s either black/blue or white/gold. Check out this video demonstrating the automatic mind in action: watch and try to count how many times a specific cue happens. SPOILER ALERT: The point isn’t to test your counting (15 times, btw) but rather to show how a giant gorilla walked right across the screen but you totally missed it while you were counting.

Our brains constantly discard and invent information to build a reality that feels right to us, based on experience and context. These neural tricks are necessary – without them, we’d be incapacitated by all the information coming at us all the time. In most situations, these shortcuts do their job well but they’re not perfect. When it comes to racial understanding in America, our unconscious biases are filtering our impressions and limiting our ability to fully engage.

This idea, while backed by science, can be controversial. In the debates leading up to the 2016 elections, when Hillary Clinton said she thought implicit bias was “a problem for everyone,” Trump fired back: “She accuses the entire country — essentially suggesting that everyone — including our police — are basically racist and prejudiced. It’s a bad thing she said.”

Far worse, we counter, to be so willfully, mistakenly “colorblind” that any suggestion to the contrary feels like an all-out attack. If we’re going to have meaningful conversations about race, we’re going to need to see color. After generations of strained silence and “polite” distance,  it’s time to open up and get real. “Color consciousness” can lead the way.

Project Implicit test screenshot (author’s results)

We’re in! This year at the Local paper, team members begin Unconscious Bias testing and training to help identify (and mitigate) blind spots. We also hope to learn skills to speak and write more effectively for our multi-cultural audience. Even better, we’re going to model the whole uncomfortable process in a succession of candid articles and video.

Unconscious Bias training can be extremely challenging and even heart-wrenching – usually, sessions are private and highly personal. Screw that! Local writers, editors and Board members will be sharing our experiences honestly, in “real time” as we learn. This way, readers can see for themselves the work that needs to be done, and maybe sign up when our next round of training opens for the community.

Here’s to 2020, a fitting year to start seeing ourselves and our world more clearly. Hope you will join us in our eye-opening journey. With special thanks to the Independence Public Media Foundation for funding this project, and to our awesome staffers who are putting their necks out to promote change we all believe in.

TEST YOURSELF! Project Implicit provides over a dozen tests you can take right now online to gauge your own Unconscious Biases about race, age, gender and more. All you need is a keyboard — put your fingers on I and E, then see how fast you can match words/images with the faces that flash across your screen. While there’s a good deal of healthy skepticism about how well these tests work, it’s still pretty interesting to see how your brain freezes up and struggles with certain associations more than others.

Make sure you click on all the links for fascinating information your brain may have been hiding from you all this time… Comments? Questions? Lay ’em on us, below, or email editors@nwlocalpaper.com.

PS: In 2016, the NY Times published a series of short, fun videos exploring racism and unconscious bias, how our brains work, why we’re so awkward and how to overcome our stereotypical inclinations with naps, snacks and friendship. Check them out, and also take whirl thru 2017’s 26 mini-films exploring race, bias and identify thru highly-personal (and often heartbreaking) narratives.


  1. We are a local interracial couple who has been the target of horrible attacks in GERMANTOWN by Blacks. Please TELL THE WHOLE STORY PLEASE …not just one-sided bias THANK YOU !

    • Thank you for your comment. You are right, no one is immune from their own biases — and there are many kinds of bias besides race: age, gender, size, ability, language… Income disparity/class is probably the biggest one affecting us all these days. Our conversation will begin with our own personal need as a newspaper to confront our own biases as mostly white writers/editors serving a majority minority community such as Germantown. Again, this will just be a starting point to learn & model more constructive ways we can identify and manage unconscious & implicit biases here in our neighborhood.

      We hear your fears and concerns! We think, however, a better way to approach racism can be to put aside our sensitivities and allow us all to speak our own truths — whatever they are — and regard them honestly & publicly, with historical context and social feedback. You’re right, it’s not all “black and white” (and we fully expect things to get messy, which is OK!). Thank you again for your comment, I hope you will follow our series and perhaps share more insights from your own experience as we continue.

  2. Does the writer of your article on implicit bias really believe that attitudes of Americans toward interracial marriage have not changed since the 1950’s?

    • Certainly not, check the wording: the phrase is “less than 10% of Americans surveyed would admit to pollsters…” That doesn’t say opinions changed (or didn’t change), just that Americans changed how they answered opinion polls. Thank you for your comment, happy to have the opportunity to clarify.

      • Then your point was very poorly expressed. The full quote is, “By the 2000’s, less than 10% of Americans would admit to pollsters they disapproved of interracial marriage.” Since one “admits” something only reluctantly, the plain meaning of this statement is that the actual percentage of Americans who disapprove of interracial marriage is MUCH larger than 10% but that most of them just won’t “admit” it.

        Let’s pose the question differently. You accept without question that in the 1950’s, 95% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. What percentage now disapproves? And whatever number you assert, what is your evidence for it?

        • Not sure what you’re getting at. This article does not say that 95% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage but that 95% of Americans SURVEYED disapproved. Is there some point you are trying to make about interracial marriage? Personally — as you will soon learn in our series on unconscious bias training at the Local — I have very little experience with interracial marriage and racial issues altogether so it’s very hard for me to speak to how Americans overall feel.

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