Do your personal biases make you racist? Or just human?
Have you ever wanted to ask someone from a different race about what life is like for them but didn't because you were afraid you might offend them or they might consider you to be bigoted or racist? Did you pick up mindsets from your family that you realize now many people consider racist but you find yourself believing those ideas anyway? Do you ever find yourself thinking, Well that bad thing happened to those people because they are from this or that race or cultural group? If you answered yes to these questions, congratulations, you are human.
We all have thoughts that stereotype others; we all see circumstances that we may credit as being typical to one race group or another. Why? Because most of us didn't grow up in a bias-free bubble and thus we have absorbed thoughts and mindsets that may be negative about or hurtful toward another group (or maybe even our own race). Yet our society has become so sensitive and divisive about racism that we don't allow one another to have honest, healthy discussions about our differences, our fears, our thoughts or mindsets, or the reality that every person (however well intentioned) views others with at least some measure of bias.
These unconscious and unchallenged biases from childhood, peer groups, the media, and our families are dangerous, particularly for those of us who serve the public, such as teachers, police officers, psychologists, and politicians. If we don't acknowledge and come to terms with the biases we hold then we may react to others in ways that are damaging to them, to relationships, as well as to our ability to do our jobs effectively and with integrity. Because, as we've all seen tragically unfold in the news time and time again, reactions born from unchecked bias can be deadly.
If I am a teacher and I unconsciously believe that all Asian children are smart, can I be a good teacher to the Asian child that struggles? If I am a psychologist raised to believe that Black men are dangerous, can I really provide the best therapy services to a Black man who becomes my client? What if I believe Jews are dishonest or that all women are inferior to men? Can I possibly be counted on to help and not hurt the people who walk into my office? Can any of us be the best parents, co-workers, friends, and peers if we have biased mindsets that are both unchecked and unexamined?
A terrible tragedy has happened in Ferguson, where an unarmed black man was shot by a police officer. Was this police officer raised to fear black men? Has he grown to believe that blacks are somehow inferior or not worthy of a conversation to discuss guilt or innocence? I'm giving a hypothetical here in that we don't know much about the officer's background or all the details of the situation. What we do know is that when unconscious beliefs are not addressed, tragedies can occur.
Here's the overarching problem: We aren't making our world emotionally safe for people to have discussions about race, differences, fears, and biases. We shut people down the minute we think they may be saying something racist. I'm not talking about the KKK here but rather regular, hard working people who are genuinely trying to understand and do their best, both personally and professionally. What if we actually allowed people to talk about racial, cultural, religious, etc. differences? How can we ever expect people to open their minds up and learn what they do need to know and need to better understand if we never give them space to safely come to terms with what they don't know and don't understand? What if we could just admit that learning bias and stereotypes in our childhoods happens and then discuss why we believed those things and how we are working to learn more and change our mindset? What if it was ok to be human and flawed yet still steadily working to improve ourselves and to better understand the reality faced by others?
Our country seems to be as racially divided as ever and the conversations more angry and less productive, as well. Maybe it’s time for all of us to stop yelling, accusing, judging, and hating and instead work on hearing, helping, and changing ... together. Racism is deadly if it is left unexamined and unchallenged. But challenging ideas and mindsets does not have to involve attacking each other. We can start with our own biases. Examine them, question them, talk about them with others. We must also insist that our social service employees do this work as well before they work with the public and before anyone else dies.
How do you approach conversations about race and bias in a positive manner? Share in the comments below.
You can reach her at Lisa@smartwomeninspiredlives.com