We might not want to believe it or acknowledge it, but we’re all carrying around unconscious biases every day.
It could be the woman human resources director who realizes that although she advocates for women to hold leadership positions, she has an unconscious bias against women leaders (Kristen Pressner, “Are you biased? I am,” TEDxBasel, https://tinyurl.com/biasvideo 2016). It could be the male boss who consistently shows favoritism to the women on his staff that he finds most attractive. Or it could be the local newspaper editor who struggles with a knee-jerk reaction to Spanish-speaking male laborers because of his parents’ attitude toward migrant farm workers during his childhood.
You see, unconscious bias is the “cumulative effect of everything we’ve experienced in our lives,” Ms. Pressner says in the video referenced above. “It may not be who we want to be consciously,” but the fact is the bias exists.
Vanderbilt University uses this foundational definition of unconscious bias in its work with both students and staff:
“Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair.
“Many researchers suggest that unconscious bias occurs automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experiences and background. As a result of unconscious biases, certain people benefit and other people are penalized.
“In contrast, deliberate prejudices are defined as conscious bias (or explicit bias). Although we all have biases, many unconscious biases tend to be exhibited toward minority groups based on factors such as class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, age, disability and more.”
What transforms unconscious bias into clear-cut racism is when we consciously decide we are inherently superior to someone else because of our skin color.
And we clearly become racist when we act on that belief, trying to keep others down based on our perception that they aren’t worthy of the same rights and privileges we enjoy.
But who gets to decide what’s racism and whether someone is racist? Is it even important to make that distinction, or do the labels cause people to go on the defensive in such a strong way that any chance of communication about the issue goes out the window? We know from example that even the most caring, compassionate, “non-racist” person can occasionally say or do something that makes them seem like a racist.
Let’s test this theory. Here are three recent local examples of situations we’ve become aware of that some might say are clear examples of racism, while others will disagree.
Last weekend, we shared with readers the experiences of Davin Ro, an East High sophomore and second-generation Korean-American who was born in the United States. He shared that, as COVID-19 cases peaked last fall, some of his white classmates “told me to go back to my country and take my virus with me. (They said) I’m not wanted here because I killed and infected so many people.”
Last month, a Wyoming Tribune Eagle reader called to object to us following a recent Associated Press Stylebook change to capitalize “Black.” He said he felt like he was being discriminated against because we don’t also capitalize “white.” He added, “Why do we need a Black History Month, anyway? If we need that, why don’t we have a White History Month?”
During recent committee testimony, new state Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said that Black Americans are “stuck” in a mentality “worse than slavery itself.” While arguing for a bill he said was designed to increase civics education, he said he believes schools are overemphasizing the subject of systemic racism.
Are these examples of racism, and are the people involved racist? Does it really matter how we label them? They all were clearly biased.
Of course, these examples are a far cry from the blatant examples of racism experienced by non-white citizens throughout our country. (And because everyone on our Editorial Board at this point is white, we struggle with whether we’re even qualified to discuss this topic.)
After the recent mass shooting in Georgia of people of Asian ancestry, the issue of racism is front and center in our country once again. That’s a good thing. We need to have these conversations.
But the key is how we go about it. Will we keep pointing fingers at each other, or will we stop and look inside ourselves? When a bias is brought to our attention, will we acknowledge it and consciously make an effort to overcome it, or will we loudly deny it exists and continue with the same discriminatory behavior?
The reality is, various forms of racism exists throughout the United States, and we need to take a serious look at all societal systems, such as access to quality health care, the ability to exercise such basic rights as voting and equal access to every type of occupation. Where do the biases show up, in what form, and how do we overcome them?
And yes, we need to have that conversation here in Wyoming. Because even though we haven’t experienced the severe racial tensions and violence seen in other places recently, the Equality State has its own sad history of racial discrimination. For people of Asian ancestry, this has meant denied rights for Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad that established Cheyenne, the 1885 massacre of hundreds of Chinese miners near Rock Springs and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain during World War II.
Just as we have a long way to go to achieve the dream of living in a country where “all (people) are created equal,” we have work to do to truly deserve the nickname “Equality State.”
Only when we put down the verbal torches, acknowledge our biases and start making changes within ourselves can we begin to live into our potential.