I’m Not Racist, But…

Well, yes you are. You know how I know? EVERYBODY IS.

Avenue Q said it best: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

And it doesn’t stop with race. People pre-judge all the time, based on all kinds of (sometimes totally ludicrous) cues. I don’t talk to people about “edgy” topics very much because I’m continually disappointed by them. I am something of an optimist in that I just assume that people think the way I do, and by that I mean “at all”. I try to question my thought processes daily. When something surprises me, I ask myself why that surprised me.

I’ll give you an example. I was driving home from work the other day and saw someone driving like a complete jackass. Swerving in and out of traffic, gunning it to pass someone through the tiniest little hole between the poor sap they were about to rear and the near-victim they almost sideswiped to gain their tenth of a second. From my days in college, my immediate assumption about this person was that they were a privileged early twenties douche bag looking white dude with a badly lined goatee and a tight fitting wife beater. Yes, that’s what my subconscious thinks shitty drivers look like.

I was wrong. I passed the car as they were stuck in line to exit the highway. It was a woman talking on her phone. I couldn’t really tell the ethnicity because she was wearing huge sunglasses, but she was light-skinned, so my guess is white, but she could have been latina.

That surprised me. And that made me ask myself, why was I surprised by that?

That simple question is the key to evaluating your personal biases. You have them. Don’t try to tell me that you don’t. Everyone has them; it’s a side effect of existing as part of an ecosystem. It’s instinct, like being afraid of big cats. You should be scared of tigers because you, or some of your ancestors, saw what they were capable of and didn’t want be added to the menu. So, you prejudge a tiger as a thing that will kill you. That doesn’t mean that every tiger will snap your neck, but in your mind, tigers are capable of extreme violence, and so you are weary around them.

The same concept applies to interactions with people. Let’s say that when you were young, there was an ice cream truck. That ice cream truck was driven by a man without much hair and who had shocking blue eyes. He was the only bald blue-eyed guy you ever met and he was always smiling and handing you your favorite dessert treat. Now, you might form a subconscious opinion about bald blue-eyed men. So, when your forty and some blue-eyed guy with a bad toupee sticks you up in an alley somewhere, it surprises you. Not only because you just got jacked, but because that guy did it. You thought blue-eyed guys were the nice ones.

It surprised you.

So, when something surprises you, think about why; really think about it. Don’t just give it a cursory inspection and move on with your day. Substitute different people into the scenario. Why does it make more sense for those other people to do that thing? What about you makes you think that. Because here’s the truth that not many people seem to want to accept: It’s your fault you feel the way you do. It isn’t anyone else “living up to stereotypes” that make you biased or prejudiced. It’s you and only you.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and the woman in the corner raises her hand and has a really good idea, see if it surprises you. And if you think the idea she had wasn’t very good, ask yourself if a man had said it, would you feel differently? If the black guy on the subway scoots over so you can have room to sit, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if you think a white lady doing it would have been weird. If the middle eastern man at the shop is rooting for the same team as you, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if a white guy doing it would have been odd.

It’s incredible how much you learn about yourself when you remove the assumption that you’re right. Confirmation bias, I believe is what it’s called. Ignore it. Don’t assume you’re right. Assume you’re wrong until you can prove to yourself that your brain can be trusted. You might be surprised.

Then ask yourself why.

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