If your skin is white, like mine, I urge you to take the online Implicit Bias test conducted by Harvard University. They have several, but I’m specifically talking about the White-Black bias test.
You won’t like the results. Most of us white folk put a lot of energy into appearing to be unbiased based on race. Most of us get very defensive if called a racist. I admit to having a certain amount of ill-founded pride in being ‘very tolerant’ towards race — so I was very disappointed to find the test revealed that I had a certain amount of implicit bias. In other words, I automatically have a stronger positive feeling towards people of lighter skin than darker skin.
My first response (which is typical for people taking the test) was to blame the test. After all, I think racism is evil, and all prejudice based on skin color is wrong, and even dumb. But what the test measures is our ‘gut response,’ formed before the thinking part of the brain kicks in. Just take it and you’ll see what I mean.
Now that I’ve calmed down, I know it’s true. My experiences, conversations, media, and curricula have taught me to see dark skin in a more negative way. Think of a Disney villain…I’ll bet they have darker skin than the Hero. How many Bad Guys can you think of that have dark skin? How many mugshots have you seen on the news of folks with dark skin? I didn’t ask for this. But I am responsible for my response. These experiences form my automatic bias, and if I pass them on uncritically…well, I’m not one of the Good Guys.
I’m not a Bad Guy for having implicit bias, but my responsibility is to stop uncritically accepting the ways that my bias gets passed on or tolerated. I have to start with myself, so I’ve developed a list of ‘explicit biases’ that I want to train myself in. Just as our negative implicit biases take a while to learn, so will my correction to them.
When I encounter a person that is culturally, socially, economically distant from me, I run through a list. I affirm in my head that this person:
- is different from anyone else on the planet
- has a rich inner life that I may or may not see
- has an education that I don’t
- is embedded in family relationships, some of which may be complicated
- is embedded in social relationships, some of which may be complicated
- is a Child of God
It might seem clumsy, but I already make those assumptions about people I find very similar to me. Either way, I am convinced that my moral responsibility to change racism does not stop at passively deciding something is wrong, but includes actively changing the way it works through me. In this case, it starts with rewiring my brain.