A few days ago, at my exhibit table at the annual METCO Director’s Conference, my bias showed up unexpectedly. As conference goers came and went, I sat, sipping my coffee, interacting in the friendly, unguarded way I love most. About thirty people had come and gone from my table when suddenly, I noticed I was on my feet, standing and talking to my latest visitor. I had no memory of making a choice to stand. Nor could I recall the physical movements of pushing back in my chair, leaning forward, putting pressure on feet, and rising. It reminded me of those moments on the highway when suddenly I think, “I have no memory of the last five miles of highway. Did I go through the toll already?” Well-practiced, engrained behaviors are powerful companions, even when we don’t want them to be.
My entire demeanor had changed. I glanced down and noticed I’d also slipped my coffee cup behind my stack of books. Was I trying to look more professional? Focusing on the conversation with the white man standing in front of me became a struggle once I recognized that my auto response to white men had silently compelled me to rise, to show heightened attention and respect. He didn’t ask for it. I simply gave it. He was warm, open, and significantly younger than me. Yet, my bias to overvalue white adult males, particularly the white-collar sort, showed up the second the first white male approached my table. Just to be clear, the unexpected guest was not the white man, it was my subconscious bias-based behavior towards white men.
Though I don’t consciously believe white men are superior to anyone else, apparently, subconsciously I do. A lifetime of messaging that white men matter more, is engrained in me. I didn’t confess my inner conflict to my white male table visitor. I wish I had. We probably could’ve both learned something, had a laugh, and made visible the invisible grip our respective socializations can have on us.
With all the talk from white people about how Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths are about all kinds of tragedy except racism, I hope we can all go deeper. What does cause a white police man’s hand to reach for the gun and shoot to kill? What does create the urge to hold firm a chokehold amidst the words, “I can’t breathe.” We are all susceptible to being driven by that which we’ve been conditioned to fear, value, accept, and reject. Bias comes with the human experience as much as hunger, thirst, sickness, and health.
Far from making us bad people, getting in touch with our own biases may be our best bet in becoming better people. Our tendency to accept what we already know and reject what seems unfathomable is among the biases to be explored. For anyone who thinks they don’t have a racist bone in their body, I encourage you to journey inwards. I’m still familiarizing myself with the many racist, and now I’m learning sexist, bones in my body. With each discovery, I feel increasingly able to see people for who they are and decreasingly beholden to invisible beliefs about how much they should matter to me.