Bias is not “Bad”
The part of our brain where ‘intuition’ sparks from is the same as the origin of our unconscious biases.
This is quite a dilemma.
How can we trust our gut, the synthesis of our lived experience, if it feels the same in the moment as a preconceived notion?
Is it the truth or a prejudice? Our spidey-sense or a harmful blind spot?
What happens when our ‘gut’ gives us bad information?
Are we all racist?
I think the sense of complicity in racism, for many of us white people, reflects the difficulty of unconscious bias. Depending on your perspective, this could be a lingering residue of America’s racist past or an insidious deepening of it.
Either way, it’s not terribly controversial to say that we’ve corrected most of the overt race-based (and gender-based while we’re at it) limits once placed on individuals throughout the nation. We all know that racism didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, nor with the end of Jim Crow and redlining, segregated schools and retail, voting rights, restrictive loan terms and suburban subsidy guidelines that prohibited lending to black families. These legal policies have been addressed formally through mind-boggling courageous work from diverse Americans in the last hundred years.
Of course, the impacts of these policies are still with us today. Inherited wealth, access to education and a certain sanguine mindset — that these opportunities are for you — is a promising recipe for success that a great many black Americans still do not enjoy today.
There’s a sense of ‘catching up’ that is incredibly frustrating for most of us who dream of living in a truly equitable country. It’s frustrating to those who are still behind, it’s frustrating to those who are tired of arguing about it and everyone in between. Because despite the policy changes to ostensibly make our society just, it is humans who must live by the policies. And humans are sensitive, irrational beings with a shit ton of biases.
Here’s the thing– biases don’t make us bad.
We are subjective, cognitively limited creatures and our biases help us make decisions without enough information. Biases are normal, biological responses to an overstimulating world. Everybody has them.
If we can’t avoid having biases, the best we can do is try to work with them, continually improve their accuracy by seeking new information and deepening our understanding. It’s progress, not perfection.
What is my inheritance?
When I think about racism as I’ve witnessed it, practiced it, or benefited from it, personally, I find I have to dig pretty deep into the ol’ archives for specific examples.
What seems more obvious to me, if I’m honest, is that I’m ahead in some aspects because my Dad’s grandparents were able to own property and build a business that sustained several generations, afforded quality education to their kids, and fostered a sense of confidence in themselves as capable members of society.
Oh, I inherited some of my grandmother’s baubles, some jewelry and dresses from the 60’s for glamorous parties, the likes of which I rarely find myself attending. With the gold-plated bangles and charm bracelet is a certain carefree ownership of her life that I think all humans deserve.
From my grandmother, I inherited a mindset that said I could experience pleasure in my life. I could enjoy it, travel widely and love deeply. Appreciate a beautiful view and a good meal and treat my loved ones when I can. That has been her greatest legacy to me.
The white boys writing the Declaration of Independence said it well: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. We all must define these terms for ourselves.
I have obviously only experienced my life through my perceptions and attributes; wearing my olive white skin, feeling at home in my gender and influenced by the ideas and teachers I’ve been exposed to. I can never understand, truly, what it feels like to grow up in a country that enslaved my ancestors and put them through such hell. I do understand personally, from much less egregious acts, how hard it is to reconcile. Forget about a post-racial future without a genuine attempt to apologize and atone for past wrongs. We must keep trying, as a collective, to heal the trauma our forefathers inflicted and experienced.
But manufacturing racism within ourselves, where perhaps there is simply the normal phenomenon of bias, does not seem to me to lead us toward meaningful, actionable healing.
And now, an overshare
I experienced a variation of this with the sexual consent reckoning of the last several years. For various reasons, some I like and some I don’t, I’ve lived a pretty slutty life. I’ve had a lot of partners and been in some weird, wild situations.
Through the lens of Me Too, I looked back at my life horrified. Was I raped? Well…I could say I found myself in the position many times of not exactly wanting to be with someone, but not quite knowing what I did want. I didn’t communicate easily about intimacy and sex. In fact, I used to find some relief in the fact that during sex, I didn’t have to talk to this person. It wasn’t overtly consensual, but it would take a PhD to understand my own perplexity about how I navigated these relationships.
When I taught a bunch of 9th graders self-defense last winter, our classes were 20–40 kids of all genders. I realized some of my normal teaching points about boundaries and consent excluded half of them, practically turned them into perpetrators. And they were just kids. Almost adult-sized, and very precocious, but still figuring so much out.
Here I was, old enough to be their mother, putting more onus on these boys to communicate about consent and boundaries than I am able to accept for myself. I realized that from this angle, perpetrator does not equal winner. Everyone loses in this game.
It struck me that we cannot get ourselves out of a perpetrator/victim dynamic without skills in communication. Nobody can fix this in a vacuum. Humans without boundaries get hurt. Boundaries themselves can be weaponized. Without a feedback system that helps us learn about our impact on others, consistently and compassionately and honestly, we do not get the new information our psyches need to revise harmful biases. We can’t will ourselves into righteousness, just as we can’t will ourselves to suddenly know Spanish or how to play the violin.
We need to be talking to each other.
I’m certainly no saint (though I think Jesus would have been fond of me), but I realized several years ago that a lot of things that seemed like a ‘default’ to me were based in cultural norms, not actual objective standards. I recognized that talking about race with all white friends was probably limiting me from some important perspectives. I took myself on a slow, prodding path to seek connections with non-white people both in my personal life and in the art, literature and pop-culture I digested.
And, oh my god! It’s a gold mine!
We are living in a time when unique voices are so accessible. It’s incredible living in the Bay Area with these established, complex cultural hubs and communities just living their lives through the whistle of BART. I have a more diverse pool of friends I can check in with about the happenings of the world and my own thoughts or theirs. I am a better person because of our relationships.
But I can tell you, everyone is exceedingly human. Interestingly, intolerably, uniquely human. Everyone leans on biases in a stressful situation. It doesn’t make for an evil person with no possibility of redemption. I don’t believe that.
I hope the energy of this moment helps us make swift progress on bringing those who have suffered from oppression into their rightful place as contenders for the Pursuit of Happiness.
But progress requires a dialogue. It requires we can engage as equals in an active, good faith conversation for how to address our problems and what kind of future we want to leave for our kids.
I think this is the single best practice to assess our biases, because it helps us work through our thinking. It helps us get feedback and see what we missed. It helps stoke our curiosity where we are ignorant and spark our creativity where we are stuck. It helps us build trust and connections, support networks that will help us through the good times and the bad.
Our biases reflect stories, experiences, propaganda and prejudices. Working with our blind spots, we might also help to improve the very scenarios that lead to them in the first place.
We have plenty of problems, real meaty difficult ones that we need to attempt to solve. Let’s not spend our energy willing our biases to magically disappear.
We are mostly good. We are all imperfect. And we are in this together.