In his remarks regarding the George Zimmerman verdict last summer, President Obama challenged Americans to “wring as much bias” from themselves as possible. We need to do “some soul-searching,” Obama advised the nation. Amid all the media coverage of the Zimmerman and now the Michael Dunn verdicts, I’m left wondering if we aren’t forgetting to do our own introspective soul-searching. Are we taking steps to “wring” ourselves of bias, and not just pinning bias on the George Zimmermans and Michael Dunns of the world?
The truth is, there is more that George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and I have in common than makes me comfortable. Sure, I would never find myself in the same situation—I would never follow a young black man, I wouldn’t tell a carload of teenagers to turn down their music and I don’t own a gun. But just as Zimmerman relied on stereotypes of black men as dangerous, I also rely on stereotypes. I am kidding myself if I deny the fact that as a single white woman walking down an empty street at night, I wouldn’t think about crossing to the other side if I saw a black man in a hoodie coming toward me. And while I wouldn’t actually tell a carload of black teenagers to turn down their rap, I would probably roll my eyes and consciously or unconsciously make a generalization about “those kinds of kids.”
In short, George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and I are all the products of a society that saturates us in implicit bias and trains us to rely on stereotypes—to fear, pity or dehumanize folks who are black or brown. The stereotypes of black men as dangerous or stupid impact my actions—albeit in nonlethal ways—just as they influenced the actions of Zimmerman and Dunn. By crossing a street when I see a black man at night, or rolling my eyes at a group of loud black teenagers, I also am dehumanizing someone simply because, given the color of their skin, that person fits into a certain stereotype.
For those not familiar with the concept, implicit bias is a psychological term referring to unconscious negative associations. We only have conscious access to about 5 percent of our brain, so much of how we think, feel, and act occurs unconsciously. This means that a person can consciously reject racism, but still be influenced by biased stereotypes unconsciously. This isn’t a problem affecting just a few of us either: Research shows that the majority of Americans hold some degree of implicit racial bias, even though 85 percent of Americans consider themselves unprejudiced. Researchers have found that even judges—those “stalwarts of justice” who pledge to uphold the equal protection of the laws—are subject to implicit bias and may grant dark-skinned defendants sentences up to eight months longer for identical offenses committed by lighter-skinned defendants.
While I’ve expressed my outrage over the Zimmerman and Dunn verdicts in conversations with friends, I haven’t done much to address my own bias. What can we do to begin wringing ourselves free of bias? After a little research, here are a few simple, perhaps even fun (!) steps I’ve got planned:
Changing My Screensaver or Desktop Picture
In a July 19, 2013, story on implicit bias, NPR explained how a team of researchers studying implicit bias found that teaching people a history lesson about the injustice of prejudice was completely ineffective (thank you, token high school history classes on the history of black America). However, by exposing people to counter-stereotypical messages—for instance, by showing people images or words that “bucked the trend” of what we usually see in our culture—implicit bias could be lowered. One of the researchers, psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, took the findings to heart and programmed her screensaver to flash counter-stereotypical messages at her all day long. I am committed to changing my screensaver to images of black men pushing baby carriages, working as doctors and assuming other positions of authority.
Changing the Shows I Watch
There are a lot of shows out there, and while one can long debate whether shows portraying people of color in “typical” roles (i.e., the black women in prison in Orange Is the New Black) are racist or not, I’ve decided to veer away from them. Regardless of a show’s accuracy or inaccuracy, regardless of what the show hopes to accomplish, seeing people of color in “typical” roles reinforces stereotypes. For my guilty trash TV, then, I’m steering away from Orange Is the New Black and instead watching Scandal, which stars Kerry Washington as a super-intelligent political fixer. (Washington is the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years.)
These steps may seem frivolous, but fighting racism doesn’t need to be all grand policy changes. It can—and should—start with an honest look at ourselves. I’m not a big Tolstoy fan, but the one thing he got right was this: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
A. Gordon is a recent graduate of University of California Berkeley Law School.
A. Gordon is a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C.