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By Dawn Albert
I did not know that I was white until I was twenty. I believed the way to be a ‘good’ white person was to be ‘colorblind.’ I had no tools for engaging in conversations about race, let alone for examining my own racial privilege. I had low tolerance for the emotions that arose in conversations about race. My deep, embedded biases toward people of color remained completely unexamined. My biases may have eluded me indefinitely, given the ongoing racial segregation in the United States, and my belief in two strong myths: the origin myth of how the U.S. came to be, and the myth of meritocracy.
Conversely, I learned that I was female when I was just a few years old. At age five, my aunt told me to close my legs because ‘ladies do not sit like that.’ At ten, a stranger yelled that he would like to ‘bend me over a table.’ At sixteen, a family member told me that the female protagonist ‘wanted it’ after a rape scene in a movie. Unwittingly, I developed a bias against women—even as a member of this group—which I confirmed upon taking a Harvard Implicit Bias Test. The test reported that I have a moderate automatic association of male with career and female with family. Despite my conscious push for gender equity, I still subconsciously believe that women belong in the kitchen.
I now realize that my delayed recognition of my race has a name: privilege. White privilege, to be exact. Privilege leads to awareness gaps. The more privilege I have as a white, cisgender, non-disabled, young, English-speaker born in the U.S., the more invisible my own implicit biases are to me.
Implicit bias is an insidious and effective barrier to racial and gender equity (all equity, really). Implicit bias is universal, deeply ingrained and is sometimes even about your own marginalized identities. Implicit bias is the result of years of prejudiced conditioning and socialization that starts before we even learn to talk. It means that what we think we believe is often at odds with what we actually believe. Our biased thoughts lie just below our conscious awareness. I am talking about the of vast majority of men who believe they are not sexist and the vast majority white people who believe we are not racist. I am talking about me. I am also talking about you.
The costs of implicit bias are high. The disproportionate policing, use of brutal force, and incarceration of people of color screams institutional racism. Women and people of color in pain are provided less care than men and white people. Inequities in our education system continue to ensure that opportunity and access are not truly available to all. Male professors are rated more highly than female professors teaching the same course. People of color who ‘whiten’ their resumes receive more interviews. People of color and women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions. Racial and gender bias impact every aspect of work.
Are we destined to be victims of our implicit biases? Absolutely not. Our brain’s neuroplasticity provides a promising solution: we learned our biases, and we can un-learn them. We can rewire our brains to stop buying into the lies that have been told about those different from us.
So, what can you do personally and professionally?
First, recognize that bias is universal (so don’t feel bad about it; feel responsible). We all have work to do, and your work will appear different depending on your intersecting identities.
Second, accept that this is ongoing work. People who think they have ‘arrived’ are more likely to cause harm without knowing it.
Professionally, recognize that the more positional power you hold in your organization, the more responsibility you have to elevate and support diversity, equity and inclusion work. This starts with self-work. Are you aware of your own biases? Do you know how they play out in your decision-making? Who you hire? Who you promote? Who stays in your company? Where you direct resources? With power comes responsibility. As a CEO or senior leader, your company can benefit substantially from your leadership here. You are uniquely positioned to be the biggest champion for a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, or its largest barrier.
Now I am going to talk specifically to white people:
Talk to your kids about white privilege, race and racism. Equip them with tools to understand their own racial privilege. Do not let them get to age twenty without a real understanding of the history of this country and productive tools to talk about racism and other systems of oppression.
Break the good/bad binary: if you think of ‘good’ people as unbiased, and ‘bad’ people as biased, it is time to break that association. It will keep you from looking under your own hood (who wants to think of themselves as ‘bad?’).
Love yourself. As much as possible. A lot of shame can crop up (I have had many fragile white moments). The shame can feel immobilizing. Shame blocks productive action. Feel all of your feelings (but avoid seeking ‘absolution’ from friends, family or colleagues of color). Instead, work through the feelings with other white people who are trying to unlearn racism. Learn more about the arc of positive white identity development and recognize your small wins along the way.
I wish I could say that I have succeeded in ‘cleaning house’ of my racial biases. I have not. However, I recognize many of my biases now. Now that they are conscious, I can work on them.
Getting real with yourself about your bias may feel exceptionally vulnerable—even painful. But it is worth it. Just as there is high societal cost to bias, there is also an individual cost to believing the lie of superiority that some of us have been told. We lose some of our humanity.
What would it look like for a critical mass of people to become aware of their biases and actively addressing them? Living in true celebration of difference? Sign me up.
April 10, 2019 at 06:15AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs