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How Conscious and Unconscious Bias Challenge Racism

5 ways in which unconscious bias is nuanced.

Key points

  • The term unconscious bias is a neutralizing term that dilutes the negative connotations of racism.
  • Conscious bias is awareness of color and awareness of how the color of someone else affects a person.
  • Conscious awareness means perpetually transcending how one was taught to view differences.

Our culture is divided between those who recognize how racism has endangered and oppressed people of color in our country, and those who are threatened by difference and believe they “make the rules.”

Here in the US, the same hate that rains down on People Of Color (POCs) also rains down on Jews, of which I am one; (as well as the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.) We have all watched in horror as places of worship; Black churches, Jewish temples, even massage spas run by Asian-Americans have been desecrated; the people inside, massacred.

White Supremacist, anti-Semitic, KKK and QQQ extremists have become increasingly emboldened and outspoken and thus easier to identify and observe. Their hate and fear of anyone “different” from them is not something they hide. It results in, for example, a POC fearing how severe consequences may be if they’re being pulled over for a “routine” traffic stop. Then there are more “subtle extremists, their prejudice seethes right below the surface and is barely contained. They might fixate their hostility and resentment on programs like “Affirmative Action,” meant to even the playing field AND become angry and “territorial” when people with different skin tones are just innocently walking around in “THEIR” neighborhoods.

The term “unconscious bias” is intended to, and will hopefully become a more neutralizing term for those who grew up in or around overtly and “quietly”racist families, but have evolved enough independently to realize they do not agree with what they were taught. The unconscious bias dilutes the negative connotations of full blown racism–it offers a more patient and compassionate way of understanding that there are white people recognize the importance of expanding their belief systems beyond the xenophobia and the accompanying ugly stereotypes to which they were exposed.

Simple examples of unconscious bias include: when a young white person is hesitant to give up their seat to an older person of color on a crowded bus. Or when I white person does not think to hold the door open for a black person going into an apartment building, because “what if that person is there to commit a crime? Or, to not consider a POC for a part in a play because the character is “envisioned as white.”Again, these biases come from behavior and thinking that these white people were taught, and they may not even know they are acting on predetermined beliefs about race; they just simply believe they are making the “right decision” about why they won’t give up their seat, hold the door open, or cast a POC in a play where the character was envisioned as white.

Unconscious bias manifests when a white person cannot see how well suited for a position of responsibility or power a POC may be, their skin color and predetermined beliefs about POCs interferes too much with their expectations of what “type” of person can fill that role. They also have a difficult time grasping how the “Black Lives Matter” movement does not preclude others from mattering too. Rather, it’s meant to highlight systemic racism and unconscious bias, when part of that bias is that “Sure, Black Lives Matter, but not as much as white lives do.”

Despite the infinite ways to understand the impact of unconscious bias, there are a lot of facets of both bias and expectation that are not “unconscious,” and therefore should not be viewed as such.

Rather, biases toward POCs can also be conscious. In theory, when one b comes aware they HAVE a bias, they will do what they can to challenge their own bias. One way conscious bias has been demonstrated is during the power of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches, where a rainbow of colors, from the whitest whites to the blackest blacks marched in unity to protest the horrific racially-driven torture and murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by the now-imprisoned ex-police officer Derek Chauvin while other officers either aided in the murder, or stood idly by as George Floyd called for his dead mother, and took his last breath.

The fact that there was video evidence of this horrific injustice that was quickly circulated on all the social media platforms and made both national and international news, made the plight of POC so much more visible, and visceralof the b It also encompasses the category of white people who march in tandem with people of color and who believe on the ground in equal rights and support Black Lives Matter.

Unconscious bias may also mean attempting to over-compensate because you recognize that people in your proximity look and experience life differently than you, and consequently, you make assumptions about what their path must have looked like. To acknowledge that not all white people are “racist,” the term unconscious bias has been introduced as a way of characterizing the majority of white people who may take issue with people of color but not recognize that it’s because of their color.

I believe that, of course, racism stands on its own along with antisemitism, but that unconscious bias is nuanced. It may be the correct label for some, but the following categories should also be added to the list of ways that white people experience people of color:

1. Conscious Bias: awareness of color and understanding of how someone’s color affects you. Conscious bias can also make you aware of whether a person is a better athlete because they’re black. Or whether a person in a high-level position genuinely deserves it was helped along due to their color and life circumstances.

Being conscious of bias also means that you can challenge yourself. You may recognize that black people have a history of having been exploited and, in many cases, feeling afraid that the color of their skin could be experienced as threatening to others. You may be aware of those aspects of what it means to have darker skin or eyes shaped differently than your average white person. With conscious bias, the stereotypical views that you realize you hold can be challenged and overcome.

2. Conscious Awareness: Conscious awareness means perpetually transcending how you were taught to view differences. In many ways, it is putting conscious bias into action, taking actions based on your recognition of your own conscious bias. For example, you might recognize conscious bias in assuming race is why a person of color is a better athlete, but then consciously reframe this stereotype to respect the athlete’s hard work and training.

With conscious awareness, you can recognize that even if a person of color represents a stereotype, it is not their race but other excellent reasons like hard work that lead to this representation. With this approach, certain stereotypes can be erased, recognized, or removed entirely as you view that person as just really talented and hard-working.

There is a vast and ever-growing group that has gone from unconscious bias to conscious bias and who are continuing to work on their awareness so that they can embrace difference to its fullest.

3. Conscious Expectation: Conscious expectation is the active request you make of people of color to help you dismantle your stereotypical views. It comes from a good place, an authentic place. Still, it also assumes that a person of color is eager to engage in these efforts and may be almost as significant an imposition as unconscious bias depending on timing and situation. It may be that a person of color is already experiencing enough pressure and expectation without adding the responsibility to help you overcome your biases.

4. Unconscious Respect: Due to my conscious awareness, it was important to me that my son goes to a school where kids of color were as well represented as white kids. The first girl he ever had a crush on was black. Almost all of his friends are black. When Black Lives Matter marches were happening near where I live, I said to my son, “Do you want to go march with me?” And he said, “Mom, I don’t get it.” I said, “What don’t you get?” He said, “I never knew that Black lives didn’t matter.” That’s unconscious respect.

5. Conscious Respect: For many of us who grew up with biases, the goal is conscious respect. Bias is a learned behavior. Conscious respect is also a learned behavior. It is learning to be willfully colorblind despite the environment you grew up in. Conscious respect is based on understanding genuine discrimination and systemic racism–an agonizingly repetitive pattern that feels profoundly disturbing, upsetting, and wrong to people who have become consciously respectful.

Despite the different phases of how we got here, there is no doubt that more and more white people are aware, enraged, and disgusted by the racist and overtly biased ways that people of color are treated systemically and personally.

As our group grows, regardless of how we arrive at the point at which we recognize our own biases, we acknowledge that our humanity absolutely, unequivocally outshines the color of our skin.

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