Before you read this piece, please know it is written with love and humility. There is no escaping the fact that all of us have biases, many of them unconscious. I am certain we can all learn from each other, especially if the foundation of the approach is understanding and respect. I am not casting judgment. My hope is by sharing my thoughts, I will make a contribution to our community, encourage feedback and engage with multiple points of view.
Charlottesville was a huge eye-opening experience for me. I am shaken to my core that we are among people in our society who radiate so much anger. More than 70 years since Adolph Hitler tyrannically murdered more than 11 million innocent men, women and children, many still expound these views. When I think about the white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, I can’t help wondering how they became so fearful and embittered. And I worry, what can I do to ensure my children grow up with open hearts and minds in communities that embrace and celebrate diversity?
As a mother of three young children, I understand the seeds of bias are shown early in life. My 2-year-old is learning about the world by grouping things together. According to an article written by Amber Moore in the Medical Daily in August 2012, this is an innate skill: the human brain likes to stereotype because it can process information about a person faster. This quickly turns into a bias when the need to lump things together outweighs the ability to see unique traits.
For example, my 4-year-old approached a woman with short hair and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” In her mind, all girls have long hair. The woman asked in return “What do you think?” She innocently replied, “I think you are a girl.” In that moment, my daughter used her great big brain and her loving heart to think outside her box and change her bias to now understand that females can also have short hair.
Let’s think about a different example. A child hears from someone she loves and respects that all people with a different color skin or a different language are scary. If they are never given the opportunity to change this bias, it can remain throughout her or his life and potentially evolve into fear or hate.
According to a study conducted by Patricia Devine at the University of Wisconsin in 2011, implicit biases are associated with a wide range of discriminatory outcomes. This drives everything from the proximity you choose to sit by someone, to the kind of eye contact you make with them in an intergroup situations, to even making employment decisions.
One way to dismantle these biases is by recognizing them, realizing when we use them as justifications, setting our fears apart from facts and statistics, and ensuring that the inputs to which we expose ourselves are fair, diverse and trustworthy. Hopefully, these steps can help us to question and evolve/update/erase our biases and prejudices.
In this country, we are a melting pot. We have the opportunity to live with people of other cultures, races, religions and beliefs. Unfortunately, many times it doesn’t happen. We tend to live in bubbles with others like us and rarely travel beyond them. Unless we truly make the effort to go beyond our comfort zone and learn about people and cultures that are different, we are not taking advantage of this uniquely American gift.
We have an obligation to our children and to this great, diverse country to continually challenge ourselves to step outside our comfort zones in a loving, open and accepting way. If we don’t do this proactively, the nature of our continually expanding democracy means that it will be done for us, and maybe in a way that will make us fearful or resentful.
For my own perspective, writing this article has made me realize that I need to challenge myself more. My husband and I are talking about ways to do this. As parents, it is incumbent on us to act, and we have some ideas. We will intentionally seek out opportunities to build relationships with people of diverse backgrounds and races, we are more attuned to the biases that creep into our conversations and naming them when we see them, and we are committed to learning more. It’s a tough topic. We could be met with resentment and I am sure we will misstep at times. The worse choice, though, would be not to try at all.
In the end, my hope is that all of our brains are as big and our hearts are as loving as my 4-year old’s.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
Steering Committee, WISE