Me and My Bias

We are at a point in our society where any time anyone alleges bias it's likely to be met with a lot of defensiveness and anger and, "How could you say that?" And the reality is we're all infected with some unconscious bias. We all hold stereotypes. We may not mean to be racist or biased or sexist but it's within us. So when someone says, "I think this was biased," or, "This was an oversight that appeared to be based on bias," instead of reacting defensively to say, "Oh, maybe it was, and I'm sorry," that, I think, would be a nice model for us as a nation in handling our issues.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

A few years ago I attended a conference on race and racial issues in the United States. One of the workshops there was a group presenting a psychotherapeutic technique that I don't agree with. The presenter was a black woman whom I'll call Sandra. Listening to the presentation I became more and more uncomfortable with my objections until I could no longer contain my frustration. I raised my hand in the middle of the presentation and said loudly, "I have a problem with this." Sandra said, "That's OK, you have a right to your feelings." I responded, "I know I do." I got up and left the workshop.

Once outside of the room I began to calm down. Small emotional outbursts have never been completely foreign to me but to have one in a professional and/or activist setting like that took me by surprise. Something occurred to me: I was (still am, actually) a white male who had just had an emotional outburst disparaging the content of a workshop that was being delivered by a woman of color. Was it possible that my outburst had a racial component? I'm usually able to keep my opinions to myself in professional settings when it's important, choosing rather to seethe quietly and then trash what I don't like with my friends afterward. I tried to interpret what I had just done as I would if any other person had done it. There was no denying that I had just flagrantly and publicly de-authorized a woman of color.

I asked a friend of mine, another white male who has done a good deal of work and writing in the white anti-racist field, what he thought. His response was "I'm not going to tell you what it was because I honestly don't know, but look at what happened and decide for yourself."

I thought about it and came to this realization: of course there was a racial element in this interaction. As a white male I felt utterly authorized to tell a woman of color how wrong she was. If it had been another white male delivering the workshop I never would have been so forthcoming in my criticism. I never would have stormed out of the session. In fact, I would have felt a good deal more pressure to subordinate my own views to the ones being expressed. Rather than feeling empowered to challenge the presenter, I would have felt threatened by the challenge to my own beliefs.

As the realization that I had quite publicly enacted white privilege in the middle of a race conference dawned on me, a complex soup of emotions simmered up in me. The overwhelming feeling I had was shame. As a person who is committed to racial justice, how could I be so naïve about myself? How many times had I heard that it was no longer the explicit white supremacist that was the biggest threat to racial justice but the well-meaning white person, steeped in privilege and unaware of his racial biases? Didn't my actions make me a part of the problem?

By the time Sandra's workshop was over, I was able to find her and haltingly, sheepishly apologize. She was very gracious in accepting my apology. I could barely get the words out for my embarrassment. I spent the remaining time at that conference unable to think of much else.

I've come to understand a few things about my response to my outburst. The primary response I had was one of shame: shame at having acted out and embarrassment at having been so blatantly the opposite of who I thought I was by attending a conference on race. This is a fundamentally self-centered reaction. It is also, obviously, a shame-based one. Ironically, that shame can be the primary impediment to my becoming a more aware person. If I were unable to face that shame and work my way through it, I could easily have short-circuited my development.

Another important realization I have had about this incident is that never once did I have a conscious experience of racial animus towards Sandra. I know it's there, however. Not only do I infer it from my actions, but, against my will, in spite of my commitments and experience, in contradiction to everything I value and believe about the universal equality of humankind, I know I carry biases with me through life. When I see a young black male driving an expensive car, against my will I think, "drug money," not, "spoiled little brat - I bet his mom is an investment banker and his dad is a doctor," like I might were he white. I can perceive children of color going home from school in groups on the train as loud and menacing rather than young and excited. In predominantly non-white neighborhoods, I hold my backpack a little closer and stay a little more aware of those around me, even as I have been an agent of gentrification. (A workmate of mine, a man of color, once commented, while giving me a ride home, "You're like a marble in a bowl of raisins in this neighborhood.") My perceptions of people of color come through a fog of ingrained negative assumptions despite the years of work I've done to grow into a multicultural person.

Some people will be appalled at the things I've described about myself here. For them, what I've written about myself will simply be proof that I'm a bigot. I don't see it that way. I see my ability to be consciously aware of my biases as the best hope of managing them and, because of that, not acting them out in my life and, therefore, being less of an instrument of oppression in the lives of others who are impacted by me. I'm writing this because many of us whites have biases of which we are unaware and this makes us more likely to enact them in our own lives and deny it when they are enacted in society as a whole.

My approach is to deal with my biases similarly to how I deal with any other unwanted part of myself that dwells largely in my unconscious, like I would treat fear of success or embarrassing resentments toward people I love. Seeing them, naming them, and talking about them is a path to managing and overcoming them. My doing it publicly is an attempt to create space for others to do so as well.