The first time my now-husband Spencer challenged me on (what I thought was) a harmless comment, I was blindsided. The next time he did it, I was annoyed. The time after that, I was pretty sure he was calling me a racist, and I was pissed.
I would boldly declare the color of someone’s skin had no impact on my feelings towards them, but then I’d make a generalization that would contradict that statement. Then, when I was called out on it, I was too busy yelling and screaming, I’m not a racist! to hear what Spencer was trying to tell me. He knew I wasn’t a racist, but he also knew I had more work to do. Even more importantly, he knew he couldn’t call himself an ally if he didn’t challenge me to do that work.
So, why am I sharing this (frankly, embarrassing) confession? Because there is a gray area between racist and ally, and that’s where I unknowingly lived.
It turns out that what I was doing was actually normal (not okay, but normal). It’s called unconscious bias (also known as “implicit bias”), and it’s an unfortunate byproduct of proper brain function.
Essentially, your brain is wired to notice patterns and categorize things, and that leads to unconscious generalizations and stereotypes. These associations and patterns are made through a combination of our direct interactions, life experiences, entertainment, and the media. So even though you might not actively believe in racial stereotypes, your brain is secretly making these connections and storing the information.
Unconscious bias is the reason why so many racist systems remain in place. It’s the reason behind the lack of diversity in companies, especially those who only hire applicants who “fit into the company culture.” It’s the reason why black candidates with “black-sounding names” are significantly less likely to even get an interview than their white counterparts with the exact same experience level and qualifications.
It’s also the reason why black students are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, and receive stiffer punishments in school compared to white students who commit the same infraction.
Arguably the worst place it seeps into is the justice system. Judges are trained to be impartial but studies have shown that their implicit biases (particularly among white judges) often affect judges’ rulings.
This is especially evident when it comes to judges’ decisions to set bail. According to a 2018 study, the average bail for black defendants is $7,281 higher than white defendants for the same crimes. And yes, it’s because of implicit bias. According to the authors of the study, they found that judges often unconsciously believed that releasing black defendants was more “dangerous to the community,” thus leading them to set a higher bail.
Basically, there are a lot of “not racists” who unintentionally end up behaving in racist ways.
Not everyone is lucky enough to be married to someone who has no problem calling them out on problematic comments (it’s a blessing and a curse), so changing your thinking and actions might be difficult. But you can begin by making yourself aware of your own biases, asking someone close to you to help call attention to things you say or do that are biased, and researching the effects of implicit bias in the world.
A good place to start is by taking Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test here, which will show you where your unconscious biases lie.
Rewiring your brain is not easy, but if you truly want to help drive change, that work is imperative.