The danger of fear
I am afraid of black people — more specifically, dark-complexioned black men. I’m afraid of black women too, but in an entirely different way which I’ll get into some other time. My fear of black men is visceral, rooted in the physical and completely at odds with my utopian desires. I am ashamed because I didn’t see this fear with clarity until the horrible shooting in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. I was walking down the street after twilight, lost in thought. As I mourned the loss of my naive belief in a post-racial America I noticed a solitary dark-skinned black man walking towards me. My pulse quickened, my face flushed, I had a heightened awareness of my environment, no longer lost in my thoughts. You’d think a decade of living in New York City would’ve erased this, but I was afraid, even as I *knew* there was no logical reason to be afraid. As he passed, I made eye contact, smiled, and gave a little nod. He smiled at me and returned my nod. I made myself a pledge to mindfully dismantle my unwanted racism.
White fear is powerful. It sells ads in print and pixels. It obscures the clarity of truth with alternative facts. It elects leaders who would rather impose their homogenous vision of order than provide public safety and security for all Americans. White fear keeps our prisons filled with unrealized black excellence. It murders children as they play. It punishes black men for having the audacity to pursue their dreams without following the increasingly narrow set of byzantine rules put in place by generations of their oppressors — of us — of white people like me who will never have to navigate their dangerous journeys — of white people like me who have been complicit in their oppression with our inability to see.
The unseen truth
My work in design research gives me the opportunity to immerse myself the diversity of human experience and bring the voices of everyday people to powerful decision-makers. I learned early in my career that bias is the enemy of good research. If you don’t recognize it quickly it’ll lead you down a dangerous path, and unfortunately it’s baked into the fabric of our society. Fortunately, there are tools available to gauge a variety of types of bias. Project Implicit is an international collaboration of social scientists that has created a battery of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) geared towards measuring a variety of unconscious attitudes. I’ve used these tests to benchmark my own bias in an effort to understand my analytical prejudices.
Bias is a shortcut your brain makes so it doesn’t need to evaluate every situation from scratch. It quietly develops in the background of your thoughts, using everything you’ve experienced in your entire life to build a predictive model of your universe. Think of an apple ― is it red? Our unconscious assumptions are informed by this model, and like any predictive model it is directly influenced by the data set that’s used to train it. Think of a scientist — is it a white man wearing a lab coat? The problem is one of representation : the data set that trains our mental models. Think of a criminal — is it a black man? If the villains in the news and narratives we consume are most often black, black people will be viewed as villains — regardless of their excellence. Our mental models are trained by generations of faulty data, and it’s created a culture where the declaration that “Black Lives Matter” is absurdly controversial.
White people like me are exceptionally resistant to recognizing our compliance to the systemic racism that resides in our societal institutions. There is overwhelming statistical evidence of racial bias in our courts. Unfortunately this overwhelming evidence is rarely addressed because our Supreme Court has set precedent that this evidence cannot prove “real” discrimination. Apparently it isn’t racism if the perpetrator didn’t know they were doing it. Discrimination that stems from unconscious bias is perfectly legal in the eyes of the US judicial system, and as long as white people like me are loathe to acknowledge the existence of these systemic injustices it will remain.
The empathy remedy
I have some good news ― it’s possible to reduce personal bias, but it takes some work. People are not static, and unlearning is easier than you may think. My own journey started with declaring 2016 the “Year of No White Boys.” I purposely sought out film, literature, and music created by and centering people of color and women. I started following black folks on Instagram and Twitter. I looked for images of black men smiling and of fathers playing with their children. I made a point of making eye contact and smiling at black men as I passed them on the street. I patronized the black street vendors along Fulton Mall and webuyblack.com. I said “excuse me” and “please” and “thank you” and called every black man I spoke with “sir.” Over the last two years I’ve reduced my racial bias to “slight” on the Project Implicit IAT.
My personal journey is far from over, but it’s given me a good grounding and understanding of ways I can tackle systemic racism as a private citizen. In most of the United States, each county elects a District Attorney who acts as the chief prosecutor for the local community. Most Americans cannot name the District Attorney that is responsible for issuing arrest warrants and plea deals on their behalf. These individuals are charged with setting the judicial standards for a community. These are elected officials that have incredible power, and as engaged citizens we can hold them accountable for acknowledging and addressing racial bias within the communities they serve.
Earlier this week I attended the 2017 Annual Brooklyn Crime Victims’ Rights Event presented by the Kings County District Attorney’s Office Victim Services Unit. I was struck by the men and women of color who spoke passionately about their experiences as crime survivors and their healing journeys. These were not stories that invoked order and punishment as a remedy to their pain. These were stories that centered a desire for safety and peace — for a world without fear. Unconscious bias turns our streets into a dangerous place for black and brown people in our communities, and conflating order with safety is part of the problem. I’d like to see white people change the way we talk about policing in our communities — we need to put safety ahead of order and hold our elected officials accountable for recognizing and dismantling the systemic bias that holds black people in fear.
This piece was originally published on Medium.