7 Things We White People Can Do When We've Said or Done Something Biased

Desiree Griffiths, 31, of Miami, holds up a sign saying "Black Lives Matter", with the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner
Desiree Griffiths, 31, of Miami, holds up a sign saying "Black Lives Matter", with the names of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two black men recently killed by police, during a protest Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Miami. People are protesting nationwide against recent decisions not to prosecute white police officers involved in the killing of black men. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

It's a painful truth that just about everybody has preconceived notions about other people, sometimes based on their racial identity. We whites spend a lot of our lives bombarded with messages in the media and from those around us about what people of other races are like and how they behave, often based on irrelevant or vastly misunderstood ideas of the lived experiences of members of other groups (whiteness and the media being a huge topic in and of itself for another time).

This is compounded by the fact that many of us whites spend very little time in the company of people who are racially different from us. For those of us who do, if we ask ourselves honestly how close we are to people of other races, we often discover that we only have passing relationships with them. We don't have dinner at each other's houses nor do our kids have play dates with theirs. This is not to suggest that anyone reading this should run out and find a new friend of a different race: it's just to be frank about some of the realities of the way many of us live race in the USA.

Of course, none of us wants to be biased. In the waiting room before we came to earth as children, we didn't tick the boxes; "Blonde hair: check. Blue eyes: check. Unconscious negative racial bias: check." Our unconscious racial biases are inherited from our exposure to the system of racial bias. But just because we inherited them doesn't mean they're not ours, any less than our (metaphorical) blonde hair and blue eyes are ours. And just like anything that resides in our unconscious, our biases can rear their misinformed heads and lead us to say or do some pretty stinky stuff sometimes. When we do, here's a list of suggestions that might help to process that lousy feeling, grow through it, take responsibility for ourselves, and become less likely to act out our biases in the future.

1. Admit it to ourselves. If we've said or done something to expose them, staying in denial doesn't hide our unconscious biases from others, only from ourselves. Being able to admit that we've done it, or err on the side of believing we have when we aren't sure, is the most basic thing we can do to move in a new direction. While we don't want to be cavalier about our biases, in my experience people of other races are often not surprised when a white person around them says something racially naive. They see it a lot. One of the reasons it's important to deal maturely with ourselves when we've done it is to not make the racial burden of others any heavier.

2. Accept it. One of the worst things a person can be in our society is racist. It's so bad that a card carrying member of the KKK will tell you that, "I'm not racist, I'm just fighting for the survival of my own race," as if we whites are somehow a dwindling race, or it's a bad thing for the races to live and love closely. How much harder is it for us well-meaning whites that think the races should live in harmony and that fairness should rule? Admitting we have biases is very different from deciding to act out on them. Accepting them makes it possible for us to confront them head on.

3. Take responsibility for our feelings. Saying or doing something that exposes our unconscious bias is a painful and often embarrassing thing. For many of us, the need to feel relief from feelings of guilt or shame becomes our number one priority and, in one way or another, we try to get the person who was the target of our bias to help us feel better by telling us it wasn't biased (as if they know our inner lives better than we do), telling us that they weren't offended or annoyed (what if they were?), or any number of other ways we can enlist them to help us feel better. In doing this, that person has now not only just been the target of our bias, adding an unpleasant experience to her or his day, but is now being asked to help us manage our feelings about it. That's doubly unfair! If we can't handle the feelings we're having, we should talk with a person we know and trust and who won't minimize the importance of our awareness development. If we don't have anyone like that in our lives, we should get someone.

4. Admit it, if appropriate, to the person/people that were the target of our bias. This is a tricky one. The first priority should be the experience of the other person. If we feel that we can safely contain our feelings and not ask the other person to do any emotional or psychological work for us, and if saying something won't make it more awkward for the other person, then an honest apology can be a good thing. Maybe we can say something like: "You know, I think what I just said came from a biased place. While I didn't intend for it to happen, I take responsibility for it and I apologize." If the other person wants to talk about it then perhaps we can talk more. But it's important not to force the other person into a discussion about race. They're not there to teach us about it. They might just want to get their groceries, or get off the bus, or whatever they were doing before we came along.

5. Don't let it end there. And since they're not there to teach us about race, it's our responsibility to educate ourselves about it. There are hundreds of great resources. There are books like, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have by Janet Helm which is a primer on white racial identity awareness development; The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter; White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan, to name a few. There are fantastic groups that offer training on race, such as the Undoing Racism Workshop offered by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. The organization Training for Change offers various workshops. My blog, Middling to Fair, has a number of resources and you're always welcome to connect with me there.

6. Compassion, compassion, compassion. While racial inequity is a burden for people who are its targets, in a more subtle way, we whites are also damaged by it. We are given bad information from an early age that actually separates us from our fellow humans, makes us less aware of our realities, leads to us being more emotionally brittle than we might be otherwise, and subtly manipulates us into perpetuating the biases that are foisted upon us. The most powerful tool we have to fight that is compassion for ourselves in the process of becoming more fully aware of who we are as racial beings. Being compassionate does not mean relinquishing our responsibility to grow and treat people fairly. It means that we acknowledge that we are flawed humans that make mistakes. It means moving beyond our own guilt and towards greater love for our fellow humans and ourselves. It means refusing to beat anyone, including ourselves, into submission, but inviting all, including ourselves, into inclusion.

7. Repeat. We are people in a process of personal development. It is a journey that may have a goal but never has an end. When we think we've arrived all that's really happened is we've stopped moving. We should expect that we'll say or do something biased again, and when we do, we can commit to growing through it again.

Originally posted at Middling to Fair