Two days ago I had a conversation with someone that threw me for a loop. This is someone I have spoken with fairly regularly, perhaps every other week for a few minutes each time. We are acquaintances. This is a person who seemed to have a progressive worldview, who is concerned about the environment, who has some college education, and who is an entrepreneur with an upstart local business. It turns out he is also a racist.
This man holds the firm belief that whites are smarter than people of color, particularly African Americans. How do I know this? He told me. As has been typical of our occasional conversations, I inquire about what is new with him and he does the same with me. I mentioned that I was working on a paper regarding voting inequality. He insisted on telling me why he doesn’t vote. I told him that his reasoning – that the entire government system is corrupt and his vote doesn’t matter – was a very common refrain, but that my research interest is regarding inequality and the systemic barriers to voting faced by socially and economically disadvantaged people, which I mentioned were predominantly people of color. Without solicitation, he told me that the reason there are more poor people of color than poor whites is because they aren’t as smart as whites.
I know right? I should have walked away right then. I was not disillusioned about my odds of persuading him to rethink his beliefs – they were infinitesimal. I knew this because I had been there and done that with countless others, especially online. But let me tell you what happened. I was looking at this guy with his pale white skin, long hair, cool hat and shades, piercings, and tats and I was thinking, “I must have heard him wrong. He’s a progressive person. He must have misspoken.” As I suggested that science does not support the notion that skin color in any way affects intelligence, he offered to send me articles that proved that it does. He said intelligence is genetic. He said the evidence lies is in IQ testing statistics that back up his claim that whites are more intelligent than blacks. I suggested that IQ tests are designed to evaluate people who have experienced certain types of social and educational systems and that people who haven’t had those experiences do not fare well on such tests. I suggested that there were many ways of knowing and many current ways of evaluating people’s knowledge and abilities that move beyond the old-school IQ test. It was a civil, if tense, exchange.
He refused to consider that the IQ test results could indicate anything other than superior white intelligence. He refused to consider that other measures of intelligence could be valid. He remained dismissive of my views as another man joined the conversation, a white man I know to be quite religious who is also an entrepreneur in a similar field. We both started arguing our cases to this other man as people defending their turf and hoping to “win” an argument are wont to do (I know, I know). This man handled things very graciously and objectively, asking us to fill him in on how the conversation had begun. We obliged. In the end, the man who found himself the arbiter of this hot potato said that he agreed that skin color is no more relevant to intelligence than eye color or other physical attributes. I felt vindicated. Shortly thereafter I was able to wiggle away from this ill-fated exchange.
But let’s revisit my comments about this man’s physical appearance and how it influenced my ideas about him. This is where the really interesting stuff about this conversation lies. I assumed that this man’s hipster appearance was a reflection of his worldview and political leanings. I could not have been more wrong. He is not at all liberal. He is very traditionally southern and colonialist in his white supremacist views. Likewise, the religious family man that I thought might have agreed with his racist views proved to be progressive, accepting, and an open-minded thinker. Before this incident, if someone else told me a story like this about these two men, I would have been perplexed. I might have had to clarify that they weren’t reversing the two men’s roles in the conversation. I really thought I knew something about these men.
This is a case of implicit bias. The reason it’s implicit is because I didn’t know I was biased until I was confronted with it through this exchange. Even then, I could easily have ignored my own biases because they are very common ideas in our society that many others would have agreed about. We assume that people’s appearances – their hairstyle, clothing, cars, homes, and other possessions – and their religious affiliations are indicative of their beliefs and their character. Indeed, ideas about people, products, and appearances are marketed to us in exactly these ways. If you have _____, you will be perceived as _____. This is how bias works, how we acquire ideas about people. Their appearance, their stuff, their location, their friends, their family – the things and people with which they surround themselves – are used to evaluate their character. In some ways, it’s all we have to go on. Because most of us have seen the same commercials and watched the same movies and been taught from the same text books, we share many of the same ideas, at least within our generations. It’s pervasive. It’s unavoidable. But let’s leave this cultural rabbit hole for another time. My point is that we are all influenced in myriad ways of which we are not aware. This influence is the makings of implicit bias.
How can a person’s skin color or clothing possibly tell us anything about what is in their mind and heart, or about their intelligence, or academic potential, or sincerity? Well, they cannot, of course. They can possibly tell us something about where the person shops, or about their geographic ancestry, but even those things cannot be determined for certain with only observation. We cannot know anything meaningful about a person because they are wearing Nikes or Avia, have body art or do not, have blonde hair or blue. But I am far from the only one who would see a young blue-haired woman with a full-sleeve tattoo and a nose ring and label her as liberal or progressive. We all make these types of assumptions about others and they about us. Every. Single. Day. We don’t consciously think about these things, we just act according to them. These false ideas are embedded in our behavior and foundational to our beliefs. They inform everything we do. They are implicit.
If asked, this man who believes that whites are inherently more intelligent than blacks would probably not consider himself a racist. He may point to all the same external features about himself that I did and declare himself a liberal or progressive. He may believe that this supposed intelligence difference is just a biological fact and not a subjective belief, as his comment about intelligence being genetically linked to skin color suggests. This is his implicit bias and he can’t see it. This is not uncommon. Our conversation was a chance for him to recognize it and, like me, further evaluate his own self-awareness. Many people pass up such opportunities for personal growth every day.
As “The Fonz,” Henry Winkler’s character on the old television series “Happy Days,” so hilariously pointed out, humans have an aversion to admitting they are wrong which makes them predisposed to clinging to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Folks do some pretty crazy mental gymnastics to avoid admitting they are wrong. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, our sense of self-worth – so many difficult emotions are tied up in us embracing new ideas. Yet growth does not occur without the willingness to look at yourself honestly and be uncomfortable for a bit. Not everyone wants to grow.
It is difficult to have conversations like the one I had this weekend. The desire to change the minds of others is strong and often futile. Still, I think we have to be willing to have these difficult conversations if only to learn more about ourselves. I choose to frame this experience as an exercise in personal growth, increased awareness, and useful insights into my current community. Maybe I planted some seeds with this man that will cause him to research his beliefs more carefully, and maybe not. The important things to me are: that I was an ally to people of color, respectfully countering bigotry from another white person rather than walking away; and I learned something about myself that helped me chip away at my own implicit bias.