Where Implicit Bias Fails

Featured

The implicit bias frame does not offer equity. It offers absolution from complicity in systems that harm people. And yet, individuals, organizations, and institutions continue to use the implicit bias frame to make sense of inequity and to address it.

Take police violence, for example. In the face of the devastating and disproportionate toll police violence takes on Black and Brown people in America, policymakers have responded by offering local law enforcement implicit bias training. The underlying assumption is, police violence is an interpersonal problem that takes place between an individual “bad” officer with bias and the civilian on whom their bias is projected. In this framing, the solution then requires an interpersonal remedy to address unconscious racial stereotypes that must drive racial inequity in police violence.

But this limited reading of the problem and solution, rooted in individualized and unconscious judgement, ignores the collective impact of police violence and the explicit choices that structure, authorize and weaponize police-community relations.

Police violence is also, and I would argue, largely, a structural problem, whose effects extend beyond individual civilians to the communities and populations who directly and indirectly suffer the burden of the disproportionate risk of this form of violence. This community and population-level impact is driven by intentional human design.

Police violence must be understood as the predictable by-product of policies that introduce militarized weapons into local precincts and permit use of force in the absence of a lethal threat. Racial inequity in police violence is then incentivized by “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance” politics that penalize poverty and Blackness. This inequity is exacerbated by municipal procedure to use petty offenses to generate city revenue. And it is perpetuated by law enforcement culture that fails to demand officer accountability.

Each of the preceding system-level factors are determined by explicit human choices, not implicit beliefs. Therefore, attending a training on implicit bias or simply substituting a Black or Brown officer for a white one, because they presumably harbor less anti-Black bias, does not address the systems-level choices at the core of police violence or the racial inequities those choices create.

Similarly in medicine, implicit bias training will not help institutions unpack their problematic relationship to entrenched local poverty and racial inequity – both drivers of racial health disparities. Those relationships, between hospitals, poverty and racial inequity, are structured by intentional business models and tax designations, not unconscious preferences or prejudices. And diversifying the physician workforce without disrupting the various manifestations of white hegemony that currently set clinical priorities, research agendas, and promotional criteria, will not magically narrow racial disparities in health outcomes.

One cannot simply change a cog in an assembly line and expect the line to produce a new product. Systems function as they are designed to. To get a new outcome, it requires building a new system or transforming the existing one – each of which relies on humans making different explicit choices, regardless of their implicit leanings.

Advocates, we can no longer afford to use an individual or interpersonal analysis of harm, like that offered by the implicit bias frame, to understand and confront inequity. It fails to capture the collective experience of harm and works to conceal the ways explicit choices encoded in process, reproduce harm, across systems and populations.

While the implicit bias frame may have gained traction because the solutions it offers are relatively simple, like admitting unknowing harm in one on one interactions. The frame ultimately fails where it absolves us from confronting our knowing role in maintaining systems that inequitably distribute harm among populations. That task is more complex and requires us to challenge our individual, organizational, and institutional choices to create and uphold legacies of oppression and privilege. We all must be accountable – to each other and to ourselves, for the systems we create, the systems we protect, and the systems we participate in that harm others. Because ultimately, the goal is not to simply adjust the ratio of good to bad apples, but to change the kinds of trees we are planting.

 

Advertisements

Charlottesville

Featured

The torch-bearing, violence-streaked march of white nationalists through Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday, is terrifying. Present tense. Thanks HBO, but turns out we don’t need a fictionalized, revisionist look at the confederacy to imagine an America where Robert E. Lee is a hero, worthy of defense by militias and crowds shouting “blood and soil.” We get it already. It is the America we live in.

But in the wake of yet another iteration of emboldened racism, given platform and legitimacy by the president and his administration, it is important to be clear about the terms and legacy of this public debate.

White supremacy in America isn’t simply a set of informal ideas rooted in the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.

White supremacy is an institutionalized set of ideas founded on the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.

It’s not dangerous because some white people think they are better.

It is dangerous because it re-constitutes and maintains a tangible racial order where white people can become passive beneficiaries of public systems, public goods, public sympathy, and public protection, in ways black and brown people cannot. It is dangerous because this extreme perversion of “the public” excludes black and brown people. And the consequence is deadly.

So while yesterday’s staunch defense of the confederate flag and nostalgia for slavery may appear dated and unfamiliar, the political agenda underlying the protest is not.

In the last month, the Department of Justice, under the leadership of longtime civil rights opponent Jeff Sessions, resurrected white affirmative action to counter “race-based discrimination” in higher education that is costing supposedly deserving white students their so-called rightful place in our nation’s colleges and universities. The Republican-led House and then Senate each questioned and attempted to dismantle the merits of the Affordable Care Act, the only comprehensive national healthcare legislation to narrow deadly insurance and care gaps for black and Latinx patients. And just this past June, the president and Justice Department worked in tandem to request and secure voter data from states, an unprecedented move that has met bipartisan condemnation, and as the former head of the Civil Rights Division noted, is a prelude to voter purges that will disproportionately suppress voters of color.

So while a frequent response to yesterday, and the larger, more violent rally that took place today, is to support local organizations who condemn bigotry and hatred, such charity alone ignores the larger political agenda at stake. What is happening in Charlottesville is emblematic of what is happening to our democracy at large.

This fight is about who deserves the benefits of a shared America.

The answer to that question does not lie in outraged tweets. It lies in organized and sustained resistance to the resurgence of white supremacy that continues to threaten the lives, livelihoods, education, electoral participation, health and survival of people of color. There are only two sides of this and one is wrong.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk To Our Kids About Racism

Featured

During the 2016 election, Americans opened a public discourse that sparked new and old fears, evoked unsettling and painful emotions, and surfaced certain real and perceived divides. When elections center solutions in the background to highlight problems in the foreground, it can be distracting and confusing, for adults and kids alike. Post-election, often those intensities fade. But this time, parents may find themselves confronting sustained and sometimes increasing worry, in the emotions and experiences of their children and their children’s classmates. These are the times when parents consider how they will explore complex and potentially charged topics with their children and teens.

As parents examine their values and their hopes for their children in this post-election climate, it may be helpful to consider how to approach a topic that is as oft-used as it is misunderstood – racism.

What are we talking about when we talk to our children about racism?

And how do parents start the conversation? 

When we talk to kids about racism, we are primarily talking about 3 things.

First, we are talking about history – things that happened in the past that are important to understand what is happening now and why it matters.

To illustrate the history of racism in America, some parents may find it helpful to review age-appropriate details. For example, teenagers may have knowledge of historical events like slavery and the civil rights movement. Starting with what they know, consider extending the conversation to other demonstrations of institutional racism like government-sanctioned red-lining practices that decreased the home values of people of color, particularly African Americans, and contributed to current racial wealth disparities in America. Or examine the implications of Japanese internment camps during WWII that used race and nationality to deny Japanese Americans their civil liberties. These events and the history they represent are the embers of old fires still kindling in our present and the more we understand them, the more we are equipped to recognize their reemergence.

Second, we are talking about feelings – the prejudiced assumptions and ideas about others based on race. When stated aloud, as a part of targeted comments or unintentionally as a part of repeated narratives, prejudiced feelings can result in trauma, stress, and anxiety for the people who become the butt of a hurtful joke or the demeaned character in a story. These types of one-on-one interactions highlight episodes of personally-mediated racism.

To help kids identify prejudice and its form of racism, parents may use children’s books to share helpful lessons. Some can be found here and here.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we are talking about actions – everyday choices, big and small, to treat people differently because of their race. This is called discrimination and it is powerful because it not only hurts people’s feelings, it can also make them sick.

Simply put, racism – like many of the “isms” that have been heightened by this recent election – is about exclusion and harms. That exclusion can happen at the lunch table just as much as it can happen through laws. And the resultant harms can range from emotions like embarrassment, humiliation, and shame to physical violence, psychological stress, poverty, and disease.

As kids come home crying or with troubling stories of what they’ve seen or heard, resist the urge to dismiss their emotions with avoidance or denial. Instead consider these helpful tips:

DON’T tell kids it is unconditionally going to be okay, because for children and families who stand to lose their health insurance, residence, or civil freedoms, it may not be.

DO offer reassurance by discussing and modeling how to unconditionally support and care for classmates and friends who may be facing unique worries and stress at this time.

DON’T avoid conversations about racism, sexism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and intolerance.

DO put those conversations in an age-appropriate context that includes ways children and teens can stand up for peers when they witness their exclusion.

DON’T try to minimize a child’s fears by normalizing distressing language and behavior.

DO listen to their fears and talk about reasons for hope, including their ability to actively express empathy, support, and advocacy for peers whose fears may be different, more acute, imminent, or sustained.

These moments are opportunities to model engagement, tolerance, and compassion for children and teens trying to make sense of a world in which their values may be challenged, demeaned, or disregarded. Ultimately, what we are talking about when we talk to our kids about racism, is the type of person they can actively become.

 

The Room to Wait

Featured

The president-elect’s victory, and the tacit validation of his divisive and dangerous rhetoric and policy proposals, challenges those who call themselves liberals to be the values they espouse. Until 2 weeks ago, those values came at little cost. Aside from the news you read, the company you keep, and the places you buy produce, the daily politics of American life were, for many, comfortably cosmetic and consumer-oriented – simple public identities crafted by the items you purchase, relationships you explore, and content you share online. Then, Americans elected a xenophobic candidate who ran on an openly Islamophobic platform and has since designated overtly racist, nationalist, sexist, and homophobic advisors and federal appointees.

This. Is. The. Wake. Up. Call.

I fear we are missing it.

Despite eruptions of private emotions, public protests, and hashtags du jour, in the short 11 days since the election, some have returned to their daily lives, unscathed, and continue their daily work, unchanged. Perhaps seeking emotional refuge from their liberal outbursts, they hasten calls for stability rather than quicken the pace of resistance. They find room to wait while the marginalized among us live under the threat of violence, displacement, internment, and the insidious affront to their rights and their America that is hate speech and hate crimes that go unacknowledged and unatoned. This form of liberalism is privilege incarnate. It is the white tears that dry quickly, the fickle fetish of media sensationalism, the limited attention that only spans the interests and people that look and feel like “us” or “them,” and the normalization of public exclusion in the most powerful democracy in the world.

There is literally no time to waste. And every moment a “liberal” person, organization, or institution spends calling for caution in place of critique, pause instead of preparation, and waiting as opposed to imminent action are lost opportunities to defend the values and people liberals’ claim to hold dear.

This includes hospitals, and other public entities erected in service of community. “Carry on” attitudes that simply re-assert an existing mission without delineating concrete plans to defend or extend that mission should allied populations be endangered, are frankly not enough. And should employees fall victim to local or federal aggression, they offer no protection at all. If progress relies on accurate recognition of the problems, “carry on” stances silence the uncomfortable realities, conversations, and sacrifices required to look those problems in the face.

It is not alarmist to get prepared. And that preparation entails mobilizing the volume of resources necessary to support a diverse set of populations who now worry for their safety and security in this country. If the urgency of that need is somehow lost on you, don’t hide behind your liberal leanings and co-opt progress.

To Plan:

  • Place those most affected in positions to advise and lead how organizations respond to new needs or evolving threats facing the populations it serves.
  • Anticipate the needs of clients or patients with intersecting identities and consider forming coalitions with organizations best equipped to serve needs that may fall outside given expertise or capacity.
  • Vulnerable populations can be employed in positions that offer the least schedule flexibility. Consider adjusting those constraints as needs to care for family may rival needs to be present in the workplace.
  • Consider a buddy system or a phone tree between employees to increase the visibility of those worried about their ability to get to and from work safely.
  • Consider creating a safe space for affected employees to seek emotional or legal counsel should the need arise.
  • Consider supporting organizations that champion the needs of the marginalized with donations or service, and if possible, reflect their needs in joint legislative agendas.

The challenge liberals are facing is a kind of active democracy many have never known and it may be painstaking and overwhelming. It is also a burden people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other marginalized groups have carried, often silently and alone, for years, centuries, as the spaces to publicly express, wear, and own their person-hood is narrowed.

Vigilance is too often inherited through wounds endured. For those who now find themselves unaffected or disaffected, it is time to ask, how many wounds must be sustained for you to move from the waiting room to hold space for action?