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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.