Markus and I met a really nice couple in Los Angeles, named Nina and Matt. They invited us over for dinner. Nina was showing me around and took me into a room full of beautiful guitars and sound equipment. I said, “Oh, I didn’t know Matt was a musician.”
Nina said, “He’s not. I am.”
I felt like a sexist idiot. Here I am, a woman who is frustrated with the unequal pay and unequal representation of women in Hollywood (and a lot of other industries) and I assumed that the music room belonged to the man of the family.
That’s how unconscious bias works. We assume things about gender, race, age, sexual identity, etc. without realizing we assume them. We may even assume things that work outside of our conscious moral thinking.
Ask me if women can play guitar, if they can be great musicians, and I will give you an emphatic, “Yes! Of course.”
But find me in a situation where I’m standing in a music room at a couple’s house and I’ll assume that the husband is the musician.
That’s unconscious bias.
Racist is a racy term. It implies intent. Or, at least, I think we think it implies intent. If someone were to talk about a group of women of color in terms of, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” there are some people who would see that as a pretty racist statement.
Why? Well, mainly because no one would say that to a white person. That’s sort of the very basic way of figuring out if a statement is racist.
Still, some of us might argue that a statement is not racist unless the intention of the speaker was to denigrate the subject. The quote above is not a nuanced example. Clearly the intention is to denigrate the subjects and to incite anger and inflict hurt.
But go back to my mistake at Nina and Matt’s house. By assuming that Matt was the musician, I didn’t mean to denigrate Nina. Still, I made a pretty darn sexist assumption.
Just because we aren’t consciously sexist, or racist, or xenophobic, doesn’t mean that we aren’t sexist, racist, or xenophobic.
Assuming that someone “white” has American roots and someone of color has un-American roots, is, at best, unconscious bias and, at worst, conscious racism. The truth is that, unless our ancestors are Native American, we ALL have un-American roots. We ALL have ancestors that came from other countries. We ALL have ancestors that were immigrants.
Last week I asked you to visualize an American stepping off a bus.
What do you see? A white guy? A Christian? An English speaker? It’s important to think about our assumptions.
Friends, we live in an incredibly diverse nation. That American stepping off a bus could be any color, speak any language, practice any religion and still be just ask American as you or me. That American could have been born here or moved here by choice and still be just as American as you or me.
The hierarchy of who is more American than whom is a manifestation of our unconscious bias.
Why do you deserve to be here and believe what you believe more than “they” deserve to be here and believe what “they” believe?
Why does this country belong to you and your culture and your politics more than it belongs to someone with a different culture and politics?
Why do you deserve the American dream more than someone else?
Why do you deserve to live in a free and prosperous country more than someone else?
Heard any of these recently?
“He tried to Jew me down.”
“You’re an Indian giver.”
“You throw like a girl.”
I know you can think of a couple more phrases that I can’t print in this newspaper.
We still live in a country where we think that an Indian is an appropriate mascot. We’re so accustomed to it that we don’t think of it. Imagine if someone said, “Let’s make the university mascot a Caucasian and our logo will be the face of a white guy in a baseball cap.”
Just because we’re used to it, doesn’t mean it’s right. Just because someone else said it out loud, doesn’t mean that you’re justified in your thinking. Just because you don’t mean it to be hurtful, doesn’t mean it’s not hurting. Just because you’re willing to assume that “some of them” are good people, doesn’t mean you’re free of racism. Just because you’re a good person in a lot of ways, doesn’t mean that you don’t have flaws in your thinking.
Just because you’re not the one saying hateful things, doesn’t mean you have no responsibility to speak out against hate.
Sometimes you gotta say something is wrong, not because you’ll change the mind of the person saying it, but because other people deserve to hear it. People of color should not be the only people fighting racism. Women should not be the only people fighting sexism. The LGBTQ community should not be the only people fighting for their equal rights. Native Americans should not be the only ones fighting for their right to own their own land.
My grandmothers were born before women had the right to vote. My parents graduated from high school when schools were still segregated.
We are still a product of that history. Our culture still sits in the residual effects of that history. Our thinking still has to evolve.
The funny thing is, in many ways our children are more evolved than we are. That haven’t had a chance for unconscious bias to seep in.
A few years ago, I’m was lying in bed with my daughter. She was three.
She asked me, “What is God?”
I said, “Well, God is everything. God looks out for us.”
She said, “But who is she? Where does she live?”