|Vol. 10 No. 13
JUNE 25, 2015
On Implicit Bias
While interviewing Former Chief Noble Wray on implicit bias last week, a very engaging and thought-provoking interview, it led me to reflect on my
own life. I reflected back to my childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the playground of St. Mary’s Grade School, a lily-white western
suburb of Milwaukee — at least it was back then.
When we gathered in the school’s playground during lunch, we would oftentimes play games like tag. And in order to select the person who was “it,”
someone would recite the following rhyme while pointing to each person in turn:
“Eeny meeny miny mo, catch a [n-word] by the toe, if he hollers, let him go, out goes you.”
I’m not sure how that slipped into our vernacular. And we said it without really knowing what it meant. It was just a rhyme.
But I can’t help but wonder what messages that it was subliminally teaching us: making African Americans objects that Euro-Americans could act
upon without consequence and implying a sense of white superiority. I can’t help but wonder if that inculcated us with a subliminal implicit bias.
Years later, in 1975-1977, I ended up going to Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, a historically Black university where I was one of about
five Euro-American students in a student population of about 2,500. It was a life-changing event.
People would ask me why I went and in part, it was because I felt so manipulated by leftist groups on the UW campus back in the early 1970s that
were anti-racist, but I had no independent, real personal knowledge to make my own decisions about race and racism. I did realize that I was pretty
ignorant and so I took the opportunity to learn about Black folks.
But what I really learned about was myself. As I walked around the campus, ‘The Yard,’ as the students referred to it, I felt a level of tenseness. I was
trying to figure everything out while I was feeling like a fish out of water. I felt a mass of confusion in my head. People had reactions to me that I did
not understand and at times I would feel a little nervousness when someone would yell ‘Hey white boy’ because I felt I was being singled out and I
wasn’t sure what they meant by that.
And so as I walked on The Yard near the student union building referred to as The Sub, a realization struck me. The mass of confusion in my head
was caused by me creating sophisticated stereotypes to understand people with and because of the mass of Black humanity around me, the
stereotypes just weren’t working. I could create as many slots to pigeon-hole people into as I could dream up, but there would never be enough to
reflect the complexity around me. That tact would certainly drive me crazy and would not reflect the reality of the people’s lives around me.
And so, as I walked down The Yard, I had to admit that I did have implicit biases, that I had a level of ignorance, that I knew very little, that I would
never know “Black folks,” but I could know people of African American descent and the cultural currents that sustained them and the social barriers
and restrictions that limited their lives. And so, I had to throw out everything that I knew and start over, getting to know individuals and when I thought
I knew something about someone, I had to ask myself, “How do you know that?’
When I was on The Yard, I didn’t tell everyone that I was ignorant because I felt that maybe people wouldn’t understand and I would be placing
myself in a very vulnerable position. Perhaps some people already knew. It would have been so helpful back then if I had a “safe place” where I
could talk about this with other people. I had to keep it to myself.
Especially when I was growing up in Elm Grove, most of the information that I received about African Americans came from the media, rhymes we
used in school and the bigoted comments that people would make about African Americans. I cannot remember hearing anything negative in my
own immediate family but did hear negative depictions from distant cousins at family reunions. No one, in my memory, had little positive to say
except a neighbor, Norman Jacques who was the only social activist I ever met in Elm Grove, bless his heart. Most other people would keep their
positive comments or thoughts to themselves due to the overall negative climate at the time.
And so I had to ask, ‘Where did I get this information from?’ And then most often, I would discard the information and challenge my own beliefs. And
I think I am a better person for that and feel comfortable no matter what inter-racial situation I am in, whether it is a highly structured or completely
All of us, no matter what our backgrounds, have implicit bias. You can’t help but have it in a race-conscious society. And oftentimes, we mistake our
implicit bias for reality. The implicit bias is how we view reality, but reality is so much more complex than any of us can understand.
I learned that we all have implicit bias when I went to school at Alcorn, those reactions to me that I did not understand or things people did without
even interacting with me. Most of the time, people thought that I was a Jew from New York or a member of the Kennedy clan. And I now understand
that this view was based on the limited interactions — especially positive — they had with Euro-Americans.
While we all are relatively ignorant of each other — especially in situations where we are strangers to each other — the consequences can
oftentimes be unequal because of the position and amount of power that some of us hold in society. The results can be deadly for some and a mere
annoyance for others. Some of us can choose to deal with it and some have to deal with it every day just to survive.
And I can’t help but feel that young African American men are held down in part — some have their own issues they need to work on and get
engaged in society — by invisible shackles of implicit bias that keep them “in their place,” that create their own version of reality.
Our society and community will not be able to move forward until we all deal with our implicit biases, be that in very private or public places.
Implicit biases affect some of us more than others, but implicit biases are destructive to us all.