By Chris Bridges
Hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets in the war against racism. In some circles, there is discussion of implicit bias and its role in how we dismantle the structural and systemic discrimination that our country was founded on.
I am an African American male, a civil rights lawyer, with a background in organizing work (before Obama made it cool) and an implicit bias trainer. When thinking about the intersection of explicit racism, structural & institutional racism, and implicit bias, I believe I am well situated to see and acknowledge how most (if not all) the parts make the whole. Indeed I have some expertise in being the victim of explicit and structural racism and engaging in deep reflection over ongoing strategies for combatting it. .
The refusal to acknowledge or help others acknowledge the
role implicit bias plays (particularly among white people) can contribute
directly to explicit and systemic racism and its continuance. For example, consider
the many white people who are centering themselves in this #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd
movement as a means to feel better about their complicity in a society that allowed
one officer to force an unarmed Black man prone on the ground and murder him with
a knee crushing his neck, while three others stood idly by and watched.
Any objective lay person can identify the grave injustice of
this moment, yet many of our sympathetic white counterparts cannot identify moments where they themselves are
guilty of racially biased micro-aggressions, decision making, socially
diminutive opinion sharing over folks with lesser heard voices, and a plethora
of other biased actions and decision making in which they engage in their daily
comings and goings.
Consider some of the white allies who are centering
themselves in this moment through an outpouring of outrage and “what can we do”
and “we’re down for the cause” when Black folks who have been catching
hell for forever, have been complaining about it for forever, and are still
experiencing it daily, have largely gone ignored until this new but fleeting
moment. It is beyond sad that we only see this level of activation from many white
allies in extreme moments such as a Black man being killed on video and
in a manner that even self-acknowledged racist like several pundits on Fox TV say
“I can’t refute that this was an unjust killing.” When even Fox News shares
your outrage, that means the situation is really, really jacked up!
Still, most folks are not aware of the unfair standards that
must be met just to value Black life. All folks (including Black folks)
struggle with this on a spectrum or to varying degrees. Minimizing implicit
bias at the behest of highlighting explicit racism does not eradicate racism,
it just paints a glossy target for everyone to focus their stone throwing at,
while hiding their other hand.
Implicit bias remediation is a tool, not a cure all. It
helps our “allies” better understand the way in which they may
simultaneously be fortifying structural racism despite showing up to the
marches alongside people of color and chanting for justice.
Some choose to debate whether addressing implicit biases is
important when so much explicit bias exists.
If you want to focus on explicit bias, then do that! But there are
people who have been working in community for decades on these issues of
explicit bias and still understand the importance of changing the hearts and
minds of the folks we live, eat, breathe, and social distance with for
collective mobilization, strategic engagement. Building in greater
understanding of implicit bias can help with that impact.
Personally, I find it unwise to think that after 400 years
of repeatedly demanding accountability for overt acts or racism, countless Black
lynchings, and other abusive acts against Black people and communities of color,
that somehow yelling louder about an explicit racist incident will bring widespread structural change to fortified
system of oppression that hears our screams and gracefully bows at our jeers. A broader approach may be useful when
considering a diverse cohort of stakeholders, allies, specific interest groups,
unbothered lay people, and clearly defined enemies—all hold keys to various
parts of our institutions and the mechanisms that move them.
As such, there must be more to being an ally than just
showing up at marches, collective calls for targeted actions, and accountability
in response to specific evil and overt acts. There needs to be recognition of
the daily harm that’s occurring, even when unconscious and/or unintentional,
and effective strategies for reducing that harm. A harm that, even amongst recognized
allies and advocates, insidiously manifests itself in our prisons, our schools,
our political offices, our doctors’ offices, our apartment complexes, our
courts, our car dealerships, EVERYWHERE.
David Duke, the head of the KKK, has stated he does not
think he is racist. Many less controversial individuals argue they are not
racist because they personally would never physically lynch a Black person or person
of color. But lynching takes forms other than a physical assault.
Where explicit racism and overtly racist acts can and should
connote “terrorism”; the intentional and unintentional allowance of implicit
biases to go unchecked can connote “sleeper cells” requiring only the right
activation or provocation to also do great harm.
Unquestionably, explicit racism and overtly racist acts demanded
great focus and immediate response. However, thinking they are the only enemies
at the gate could pose a grave miscalculation in winning the war. Helping broad groups of people better
understand the ways our implicit biases impact our thoughts and actions in
every day life and not just when we are caught doing something wrong, may help
counter the more veiled acts of biases individuals think they disclaim when
offering a token criticism of the offender(s) of the day, by showing up to
marches, or by stating they would never put their knee on the neck of a Black
Implicit bias training can give potential allies of different backgrounds a growing number of tools to recognize ways in which they may be contributing to the harm of other groups. Its study can lend additional strategies for intentional collaboration with different groups and not just those in our comfortable echo chambers. I for one welcome all the tools and options available to aide me in bringing down this structurally fortified racist system, by any means necessary!