by Jonathan W. Kanter, Ph.D. and Daniel C. Rosen Ph.D., guest contributors
We recently published a blog post titled,
"What Well-Intentioned White People Can Do About Racism," and proposed five scientifically informed suggestions to empower well-meaning white people to overcome confusion, defensiveness and despair around what to do about racism today in our society and begin a journey of learning (the new language of racism), acceptance (of difficult feelings around race and racism), exploration (of your own biases), commitment (to actively be a part of the solution) and connection (to form real relationships with others who are different from you).
This post is the third of five posts that briefly unpack each of those five suggestions. Our last post talked about how to accept the difficult feelings that inevitably occur as we talk about race and engage in this work. But in addition to having difficult feelings surrounding race, we also have difficult thoughts. Today we are discussing the importance of exploring with curiosity, rather than defensiveness and denial, these difficult thoughts – specifically our own stereotypes and biases.
If you have grown up white in mainstream American culture, you have been bombarded with racist messages, images, stereotypes and biases from Day 1. Whether you grew up rich or poor, in a rural or urban setting, with parents who were explicitly, embarrassingly racist or with parents who were marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965, you grew up as part of a society that disadvantaged black people and other non-whites in infinite ways for hundreds of years; a society that continues to reinforce images of black and other non-white people as dangerous, lazy, stupid, and untrustworthy in media, in literature, and everywhere else.
As a human being with a functioning brain growing up in this society, you can’t help internalizing at least some of this, and this internalized bias affects you in ways completely outside your conscious awareness. Modern scientists call this implicit bias (see Greenwald and Krieger, 2006, for a good scientific review). It's quite possible that you can’t help it if you feel an impulse to cross the street when a group of young, black men are walking towards you. Or you can’t help negatively judging the intelligence of your taxi driver based on his accent, or feeling shame when you learn that he was a doctor or an engineer back in his country of origin. Automatic negative stereotypes and biases that pop unbidden and unannounced into our heads are often triggered by super-simple things like the color of another person’s skin, the clothes they wear, or their style of communication. This is how we have been socialized. We can’t prevent our minds from categorizing, comparing, and judging…and we can’t prevent our minds from using a white, mainstream standard as the basis for all that judging.
An interesting piece of the puzzle is that, in addition to growing up in a society that wired us to automatically have these negative thoughts and biases, society also taught us that it is absolutely wrong to have them. We can’t help having them, and we are then told that we are bad for having them. So when stereotypes and biases pop up, what do we do? We pretend they aren’t there. We try to suppress them or push them away. We get defensive. Sometimes we outright lie, both to ourselves and to others, to avoid looking bad.
Psychological scientists, however, have known for many years that trying to suppress or deny thoughts doesn’t work (see Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994, for one of many examples). In fact, often the more you try to keep a thought out of your head, the louder it yells at you. Or perhaps the thought goes a way for a little while, then comes back with a vengeance.
Or even worse – the thought influences you in unexpected ways. Imagine a white male doctor working with a black patient with chronic pain. The thought pops in the doctor’s head that the patient just wants pain medications and is a drug addict. Oops – don’t want that thought! The doctor has been trained to be on the lookout for that thought: It’s not a good thought to have; it means he’s racist. So the well-intentioned doctor tries to push that thought away. The result? The doctor, spending so much effort to NOT have racist thoughts, makes poorer eye contact, engages in more nervous laughter, speaks more haltingly and less naturally, and misses social cues from the patient and dominates the conversation. The doctor leaves the interaction thinking he did well avoiding having racist thoughts, while the patient leaves the interaction feeling unsatisfied, unseen, and uncared for.
This is not a made up example. These outcomes were observed with regularity in 131 interactions between doctors with high implicit racial bias and black patients in a large study conducted by Lisa Cooper and colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
So, if stereotypes and biases are bad (and lead to negative actions) but we can’t help having them, what do we do? Like we saw from the example of the physician above, it may be counterproductive to spend energy negating or avoiding these thoughts when they arise. The situation seems rather dire. Before giving up, keep a few things in mind. First, consider the possibility that you can have thoughts without believing them. You can learn, with time, to simply notice negative stereotypes and biases that pop into your head. And with practice, as you get better at noticing them, they have a smaller and smaller impact on you.
More importantly, understand that thought does not equal action. You can notice a negative stereotype or bias pop into your head, say hello to that troublesome little thought, and then act according to your values and who you want to be, rather than according to the thought.
Try a quick demonstration: Are you sitting down right now while reading this? If you are, say to yourself, “I am walking right now.” If you are standing right now, say to yourself “I am sitting right now.” Can you do it – think something but not do it? Of course you can, we do this all the time.
You don’t have to suppress stereotypes or biases or make these thoughts go away in order to act in non-racist ways. The action is not the same as the thought. Does your mind tell you that person at a social gathering will be rude or unfriendly? Try approaching them anyway and see what happens. Over time, you will find that the reality according to your mind does not always match up to the reality of your experience.
We all wish for a society free of negative stereotypes and biases. We are saying it is okay to have these thoughts, not as an endorsement of stereotypes and biases, but because we know that they are pretty much programmed in to us by society, and just trying to push them away because we know they are wrong doesn’t work. It is like programming a computer that 2 + 2 = 5 and then getting angry at the computer for stating 2 + 2 = 5 without changing the programming. Working on yourself such that these negative thoughts do not automatically pop into your head requires a lot of effort – like reprogramming the computer. We outline some of this effort in our next two suggestions. Simply trying not to have negative thoughts, but not committing to the hard work of the next two suggestions, is unlikely to work.
Our current, more nuanced and more accurate understanding of the nature of racism requires that all of us look inside ourselves, and develop a curiosity about our own internal and inevitable psychological processes. Rather than getting distracted with the question of “Am I racist?” our current scientific understanding of racism poses a different set of questions. Questions like “What are my biases?” “How do they guide my behavior?” and “How might this be getting in the way of the person I want to be?”
We are aware that developing this awareness takes practice, and is an ongoing process. See if you can begin by noticing what comes up for you throughout the rest of the day, or week ahead. What sorts of thoughts, when you really pay attention, run through your mind when you engage in inter-racial conversations, read a provocative article, or watch the evening news? This isn’t a test. There are no points for “good” thoughts and no deductions for “bad” ones. Instead, it is a practice of getting curious, and understanding the ways that our minds have absorbed the world around us.
Our next two posts will be about direct action. If you have been following our posts and trying out our ideas, then you have been educating yourself on the new language of racism, practicing accepting the difficult feelings that come with this territory, and now exploring with curiosity your own stereotypes and biases. Next comes action.
Cooper, L. A., Roter, D. L., Carson, K. A., Beach, M. C., Sabin, J. A., Greenwald, A. G., & Inui, T. S. (2012). The associations of clinicians' implicit attitudes about race with medical visit communication and patient ratings of interpersonal care. American Journal of Public Health, 102(5), 979-987.
Greenwald, A. C., & Krieger, L. H. (2006). Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations, California Law Review, 94(4). http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/californialawreview/vol94/iss4/1/
Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., Milne, A. B., & Jetten, J. (1994). Out of mind but back in sight: Stereotypes on the rebound. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 67(5), 808-817.
Jonathan W. Kanter is a Research Associate Professor and Director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington. Daniel C. Rosen is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Social Justice and Diversity at Bastyr University. The ideas expressed in this blog have been influenced by many sources, prominently two psychological treatments called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Functional Analytic Psychotherapy.