Confronting History

The historical, structural, and social factors that perpetuate bias.

Posted Dec 27, 2019

Last year, I was speaking with a woman at a social gathering and she told a story about a recent visit to an immediate care clinic. The waiting room was full and she had to wait in pain for hours before she was able to see a doctor. Then she sheepishly admitted that, despite her egalitarian ideals, at one point she looked around at the other patients, all of whom were Black, and thought “Why can’t I just skip to the front of the line? I’m White.”

It was shocking to hear her say that her race should have given her priority, but her admission reflects a sentiment that may be more common than we realize. For generations, White people almost exclusively held the structural power and privilege in the U.S. In the years since the civil rights era, structural barriers have remained and we continue to see wealth, power, and privilege concentrated among White people. This means that many adults in the U.S have grown up in an environment in which their doctors, lawyers, teachers, and senators were White, and in many ways, America may have looked like a White country.

Downloaded from peakpx
Source: Downloaded from peakpx

In fact, we know that people do tend to associate being American with being White. And these perceptions are important because children and adults have a tendency to think that the way things are is how they should be. So for people who grew up in a White America — believing this is the way it should be — changes to that structure can be threatening.

Several researchers, including myself, have shown that exposing White people to information about the shifting demographics in the American population — increases racial biases. Changing demographics of our leaders can also be threatening. We found that reminding White Americans about the racial significance of the election of President Obama increased their racial biases.

In some of our most recent work, we examined the impact of exposing people to information about the increase in interracial marriage over the last 50-odd years since it was legalized nationwide. In an ongoing study, we have found that highlighting the increase in interracial marriage — which may be thought of as blurring the boundaries between White people and people of other races — increased their racial biases. In other words, when we told White Americans that interracial marriage was increasing in the U.S., we found that they showed stronger biases in favor of White people.

Photo by Andrew Itaga on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Andrew Itaga on Unsplash

How can we nurture the next generation to truly embody our egalitarian ideals?

More and more research has begun focusing on the factors that shape children’s racial attitudes and what can be done to reduce their racial biases.

Most Americans explicitly reject the notion of White supremacy, but we often fail to acknowledge the hundreds of years of deliberate social and political manipulation that constructed and reinforced a racialized hierarchy in which White people held higher status than people of color. When we ignore this history and try to sweep it under the rug as “in the past,” we fail to appreciate the ways in which that history continues to impact contemporary society and the ways that we think about others around us. Research shows that educating White children about racial history and the struggles faced by people of color reduces their racial biases. This means that educating ourselves and our children about the racial history of the U.S. may be an important first step to dismantling racial biases.

We also need to be aware of the messages that are being communicated about the groups around us. Children use the implicit messages about the groups around them to form attitudes, so be on the lookout for sources of information about other groups. For instance, does your child have an opportunity to see people of color in valued and respected positions — such as teachers, doctors, or community leaders? If the answer is “no” then you might consider what changes you could make to provide your child with those opportunities. This could involve seeking out parks, festivals, and community events that draw more people of color or establishing connections with the parents of students of color in your child’s class. You can also seek out examples of people of color in respected positions, be they in your own community, on television, or in books. Providing your child with examples of people of all races and ethnicities in societally valued positions can contribute to a more diverse and inclusive worldview.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Source: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Relatedly, it is important to consider the nonverbal messages that may be communicated to your children. Seeing some people receive more positive nonverbal signals — such as smiles — than others can create biased attitudes among both children and adults. So it is important to start to recognize our own biases. Do you feel a little uncomfortable when you enter a business and you are the only White person there? Do you feel a little irritated when people are speaking languages in your presence that you do not understand? If you hear that a school is predominately made up of students of color, do you make assumptions about its quality? When we have these thoughts and reactions, there is a good chance that they may leak out through our nonverbal behavior. Unfortunately, nonverbal signals can be difficult to control, even for those with greater awareness, and they may require time and sustained effort to change.

But one thing you can change right away is how you talk to your child about race. New research shows that parents who are more aware of their own biases are more likely to talk to their children about race. This is important because many White American children report that they do not know how their parents feel about people of color, in part because most White American parents avoid talking to their children about race. But when parents do talk to their kids about race, it helps them understand what their parents’ attitudes are and can also reduce their racial biases and increase their awareness of racial inequalities.

If you are still trying to assess whether these structural racial biases have seeped into your own mind (and perhaps the mind of your child), take a moment to imagine if the U.S. congress and senate were mostly made up of Black and Brown elected representatives. Or consider how you would feel if White people became a racial minority in your neighborhood or community. If any of this makes you feel uneasy, that tells you something about your expectations and biases about who should have power and privilege in U.S. society. Until we start truly acknowledging the longstanding injustice of our national history, confront the resulting structural inequalities, and correct the biased messages that continue to be communicated to our youngsters, it will be hard for us to live up to our egalitarian ideals.

This post was originally published in Spark, the online magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity.