We frequently hear stories of parents who were rabid homophobes…until one of their own children turns out to be gay. We hear about Christians who believe stereotypes about Jews…until they meet someone at work who is Jewish. We even hear, less frequently, about white supremacists who begin interacting with Black people and finally see the light.
But not all parents of LGBTQ kids become advocates. Not all religious bigots learn to love their neighbors as themselves. And for sure not every biased person overcomes bias simply by working alongside someone of a different race or ethnicity.
Men have been living and working with women for decades without fully acknowledging the problems of unequal pay, sexual harassment, and lack of promotion.
We see poverty every day. We step right over homeless people. We’re able to ignore their suffering because we don’t understand the forces that have created it. And we’re unable to do anything to combat the misery of millions all around us unless we understand.
Clearly, proximity alone isn’t going to do the job. Exposure to others who are unlike us isn’t enough. That exposure must be coupled with education.
A white man, I taught at a Black university for ten years and managed to learn almost nothing about systemic racism. Every administrator I worked with was black. 95% of my students in every class for ten years was black. But I didn’t understand the problems I saw all about me. I had no context for them, no framework in which to put the pieces I grasped here and there. Instead, I saw things only through the lens of my white, suburban upbringing.
I was able to work in this predominantly Black environment for a full decade without lessening my biases, without even recognizing them.
I was able to work in this predominantly Black environment for a full decade without lessening my biases, without even recognizing them. If anything, my biases grew stronger because I misinterpreted so much of what I did see.
Such a lost opportunity.
In a perfect world, everyone would be self-motivated to do all the research necessary to learn about every form of injustice in our society and in other cultures across the planet. But that’s simply not realistic. Most of us won’t even bother to Google something. If we aren’t provided a link, we simply don’t bother looking it up.
Guilting our friends and family—or ourselves—for not taking a little more initiative might feel good, might feel bad, but either way, it’s ineffective.
So what can we do?
Since bias is a problem at every level of our culture, we must address it in as many different institutions as possible.
First, we set aside a couple of hours each week for ourselves, perhaps Saturday morning, maybe Thursday evening, whatever works, and dedicate that time to watching a film, listening to a podcast, or reading an article or book. Perhaps we stream a relevant video while riding our stationary bike. Maybe we listen to a podcast during our daily walk.
If the time isn’t set aside, we’ll keep postponing this essential education. To make sure we don’t get bogged down looking for something to read without ever getting to the actual reading, we can start by looking up a beginner’s list of resources. They’re all over the internet.
We can also try some of this as a couple or as a family.
It’s possible this will be as much as we can control, but we might try to get similar programs going in our local religious organizations.
We can ask HR at work if our employer can offer trainings on bias. If they offer none, then establishing one is a step forward. If they already offer three, adding a fourth is an achievable goal.
We can push for local school boards to include bias training not only for the teachers and staff but also for students.
A semester or two of bias training at the college level should be a prerequisite for graduation with any degree because without it we’re not fully preparing college grads for the workplace.
We need to find individual ways to incorporate bias training in everything we do. We belong to a quilting club with mostly white members? Let’s find books or documentaries on African American quilting and share them with the group.
We host a website on gardening? Let’s add a tab with links to YouTube channels featuring Black gardeners and include a list of additional resources on bias, even if they have nothing specifically to do with gardening. We can do the same if our website is about model airplanes or if we’re advertising our construction company. And if we have no website, we can add a link or two to our email signature line for every email we send out.If we’re to combat racism, or sexism, or ableism, or any other kind of bias throughout our society, we need to address it everywhere.
Even making it easier for people won’t guarantee that they’ll click on the links provided, watch the movies suggested, read even a single article. But we’ll make it more likely.
And just as importantly, we make sure that no one can glide through life ignoring the problems altogether. Universal healthcare was a fringe idea (in the U.S.) until Bernie Sanders ran for president. We still haven’t implemented it, but now we talk about it almost daily. Driving an idea into the consciousness of more people is an important step toward accomplishing any social change.
It’s why representation matters in film and on TV. The first interracial couples on television were scandalous. Now no one blinks an eye. A perfume commercial shows two women in love? Sure, some people still wail about the end of humanity, but more and more people just see it as normal.
To succeed, bias training must become normalized in as many places as possible. Most of us have already started educating ourselves, and we can try now to begin making it easier for the others we work, worship, and share family dinners with.
It will almost certainly be uncomfortable at first, but let’s face it, we know too much now to ever go back to blissful ignorance.