“Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized.” – Benjamin Haydon
I was teaching a class on estate planning and a man from the audience asked a question about owning property jointly with a spouse. As he was speaking he was gesturing to the woman next to him. The man speaking was white and the woman to whom he was gesturing was Asian. For some reason, it did not occur to me that they were a married couple. Well, they were.
Having an “Ooops! My bad!” moment when failing to recognize an interracial couple as a couple is not exactly racism. I think technically it is called racial “bias”, but it is still an assumption based on race. I guessed the couple has heard too many negative opinions from others about their interracial marriage and I felt bad about adding to any difficulty. After all, I kind of like to think of myself as an incredibly modern, socially liberal and even bohemian type of person – when it comes to letting everybody live as they wish, at least. Peace, love and understanding, right?
So, why did my brain have difficulty recognizing them immediately as a couple? Here is what is especially strange about that brain blip. At the time, I was in a long-term relationship with an Asian man (and I am white). There I was, operating on the automatic assumption that couples are made up of two people of the same race when I myself was in an interracial relationship. Weird, huh??
That got me thinking. I certainly wasn’t against interracial relationships since I was in one myself. It wasn’t that I wasn’t used to seeing them either, since I lived in a very large and diverse city with couples of all kinds. I do think, however, that for the first 15 years of my life in the 1970s and 1980s, since I rarely saw interracial couples in the homogenous suburbs and they were generally hidden from any popular media or images, the old wiring of “interracial couples are rare” was still embedded in my brain.
Since my 1970s childhood, I guess that enough people got tired of keeping quiet about interracial relationships – of all kinds – in order to appease those offended by them. So, people started voicing their support out loud, hanging out with people of different races, including the portrayal of interracial groups of people in the media and not freaking out when some kids showed up to the prom together.
Now I look at younger generations and how interracial couples are not only common but accepted. My friends’ children run off to the latest dance at their high school with a person of a different race, ethnicity, religion – or the same gender. No one really seems to notice, frankly.
Does that mean that younger people have less bias today than my generation? No, I don’t think so. I think things kept hidden during my formative years have since been brought out in the open in time for the next generations to consider them normal. One day, the younger generation will grow up and look back at everything that was kept hidden during their childhoods, too and marvel at how backward the world used to be.
I think of the number of times that something pops out of my brain and goes into an automatic assumption about something that is barely even a conscious thought. I really wouldn’t want someone to jump all over me if I let something like that slip out. Believe me, when my look of confusion at the married couple sitting in my class registered with them, I was backpedaling as much as I could; “Oh, I didn’t realize… I couldn’t really see… well you’re sitting so far apart…” Nah, nothing worked. The truth was that what I didn’t say, which was, “Gee, for some reason, my brain was operating off some very old programming that a white person and an Asian person can’t possibly be a couple! Which is really weird, since I am currently in such a relationship!”
Have you heard this riddle? “A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate—that boy is my son!’ Explain how this is possible.” The answer is, the surgeon is the boy’s mother. The riddle is designed to show one’s gender bias – that even now, people still operate off the generalization that surgeons are male, not female.
My guess is that there is some university study out there that backs up my theory – that we still have a lot of wiring programmed in from a long time ago that is somewhat automatic and that it doesn’t reflect our true thinking in the present day. When we react quickly and somewhat unconsciously to something, implicit bias can rise to the surface but it does not necessarily reflect our true beliefs. If we haven’t explored old thinking, it is still in there.
All of us have bias and unless we are vigilant about it, we are operating off of bias every time we need to act quickly or make a snap judgment. Our brain will operate off of generalizations, in order to establish certainty. It’s important to remember at all of these times – whether we are formulating an idea about a person we have never met or reading a resume to determine whom to bring in for an interview.
I will try to remember this the next time someone else says something that shows a bias on any basis – race, gender, religion, etc. If the rest of what that person does or says doesn’t match what has popped out of his or her mouth, I’ll be better able to give them the benefit of the doubt that some old wiring may be at work.