Note to my white self…
Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America. You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests. Good for you. However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle. First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself. Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…
It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias. If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious. This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.” This implies you are aware of your every motive. This is very unlikely. When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist. Thanks for making me aware.” This is more honest and reflective. It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.
When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are. Could they be wrong? Certainly. However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias. Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.
Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias. It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous. You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage. When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior. If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain. The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.
For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg. Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche. For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character. You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself. Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.
In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions. Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias. They don’t expect you to be unbiased. They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness. Surprise them.
Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop. If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it. Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist. Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias. All that has changed is your awareness. Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior. Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks. I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.
In the battle against systemic racism, always remember – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.