As I pulled into the gas station, I noticed the car in the handicapped spot with its placard hanging from the mirror. I pulled into a different spot nearby. As I was reaching for my purse, I noticed a woman who did not show visible signs of disability walk out the door and toward the car with the placard. As she got in and started the car, I could feel my frustration growing. “Ugh,” I thought to myself, “she sure doesn’t LOOK disabled.” Approximately two seconds later, when I realized what had just gone through my head, I felt ashamed and mortified. Why? My frustration was because she was parked in the handicapped spot that I usually parked in – with my handicapped license plate – and I don’t look any more disabled than she did. It frustrates me to no end when people question my disabilities, and yet here I was, doing the same thing to someone just like me.
There’s a reason I started with this story, and I’ll explain why in just a bit. However, what I want you to take away from this for now is that, like everyone else out there, I have biases and prejudices. And this is the story of how I went from being completely unaware of those biases and prejudices to being aware and fighting against them today.
I grew up in a wealthy suburban town in Connecticut. Diversity, as you can probably imagine, was not a thing when I was growing up. There was only one black student in my entire grade in elementary school, and he had been bussed in from the next town over under a program designed to help eliminate segregation in schools. I was raised to treat all kids – black, white, purple, disabled, etc. – as equals, and my well-meaning mother explained to me that it was important to be “colorblind.” So that’s what I was. Because I didn’t “see color,” I also didn’t see how profound societal racism really is. I didn’t see how society marginalizes disabled people, because I didn’t “see” their differences. As a white woman, I benefited from the privilege of my skin color but had no idea I did, and I thought I understood what it was like to be oppressed because women were paid less than men. I had biases that led me to cross the street if I was being approached by a black man. I looked down on how some black people dressed and spoke. I held up examples of model minorities as proof that society wasn’t racist.
Anyone who knows me now would likely read that description and be shocked, because it’s so far from where I am today. But I wanted to explain that for a reason. I was biased then, and I am biased now. The difference between then and now is that now I am more aware of my biases and I’ve done work to counter those biases.
Everyone has biases. Google has an excellent set of presentations and research to illustrate this that they’ve made publicly available. The presentation explains that the ability to process information on an unconscious level was an important part of evolution and ensured our historical survival. From Google’s presentation: “We receive 11 million bits of information every moment. We can only consciously process 40 bits.” Which means that well over 99 percent of what we are processing at any given moment is being processed unconsciously – and which leads to biases. And here’s the thing – since literally everyone has biases, it is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
In the same way, as a white woman, I benefited from the privilege of my skin color. I had the luxury of being seen as an individual versus a group. No one questioned whether I got a job or a promotion or an award based on my skin color versus my talent. I wasn’t ever followed around in a store or stopped by police because of my skin color. But if you had told me I was privileged, I would have argued it with you – because despite growing up in a wealthy town, I grew up in a poor family, and I had a very troubled childhood. Privileged? That was NOT me.
I moved to North Carolina in 2006, and began attending North Carolina Central School of Law (the evening program) in 2007. Despite attending a historically black college/university (HBCU), I was still somewhat oblivious to the societal dynamics of race – because the evening program had far fewer minorities than the traditional program had. But it was an important start of my evolution. It was there that I was exposed to the people who would help me begin to challenge my assumptions. As time went on, and as some of my friends started sharing more and more of what they were learning, I started learning too.
When you’re learning something new – whether it’s a new way of thinking, a new hobby, or a new skill – you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Learning about and challenging one’s biases is no different. Part of the challenge with making mistakes in today’s society when you’re learning how to identify and combat your hidden biases is that with social media, a mistake that you make can quickly become very public. And people in general don’t like to be wrong. I sure don’t. It’s not fun and it’s not comfortable. It’s especially not fun and comfortable when I am criticized for a mistake in a setting like Facebook, where all the people I’m connected with can see me screw up.
And let me tell you – I’ve screwed this up. Looking back on my historical Facebook posts, I found some doozies. There was the post where I decided I was finally ready to learn about the issue of systemic racism, and tagged all my friends who are people of color, expecting that they’d just appear and tell me everything I needed to know just because I asked. I argued in a forum that a black woman shouldn’t get all worked up over an instance where a minority was publicly dragged off a plane, because I truly believed that it would have happened in that situation with a white person too (even if it is factually true that a white person would have been publicly dragged off a plane in that situation, there are plenty of situations where that would not be true, and my insistence on the strict facts of the situation invalidated her legitimate concerns and feelings). I’ve inadvertently cited false statistics, and I’ve posted about actions people can take to fight oppression, when I was unwilling to take those same actions. I’ve had to learn how to be wrong and how to swallow the embarrassment and shame and anger and guilt. I’ve had to learn how to own my mistakes and apologize, instead of changing the subject, attacking the person calling me out, or otherwise lashing out.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that my intent is irrelevant when I end up creating harm. This was a hard concept for a long time. For a long time, I believed that if I had good intentions in what I was saying or doing, that should count for something when it came to being called out or being wrong – as if it somehow lessened the harm I did. A great analogy I heard drove the point home for me. I was to imagine walking in a park, and seeing two people playing frisbee, and making eye contact with them. And then, as I walked nearby, one of the people who had clearly seen me threw the frisbee and it hit me hard in the face. Should I not experience pain or not feel upset or angry just because that person had meant to throw the frisbee to the friend and didn’t intend to hit me? Of course not. It would be well within my right to be hurt, experience pain, and be angry. I might have been more willing to forgive the person if I understood it was unintentional, but it didn’t mean there wasn’t harm. Likewise, while it may have meant that people were willing to continue to engage with me because they understood the harm I did was unintentional, it didn’t mean I didn’t create harm. You can glue a shattered dish and make it functional again, but it doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same as it was before.
The work of learning about my biases and combating them is hard. It’s not easy. Not only does it require a lot of critical self-examination and facing some ideas that make me uncomfortable – both in facing them and in admitting I have them – but society makes it hard to do this work. Society has created these systems of oppression and they aren’t going to go away easily. Society does this so well that even when we are members of these groups that experience oppression we can internalize the biases against the groups. Remember that story at the beginning of this post, about me assuming someone parked in the handicapped spot didn’t look disabled? That didn’t happen at the start of my journey years ago. That happened two weeks ago.
We all have unconscious biases. There is nothing to be ashamed of about our biases, or about the privileges we may have. There are things we can do to learn about them, but we’re going to make mistakes along the way. And that doesn’t mean we should stop learning, or run away from the issues, or lash out when we are hurt or ashamed or embarrassed about making mistakes. Making mistakes and owning them is an incredibly genuine and vulnerable human thing to do. In my experience, people think more highly of me and respect me more when I display that genuineness and vulnerability than when I don’t. Think about that in your own life – do you appreciate someone who owns their mistakes and make amends more, or do you appreciate someone who refuses to discuss the mistakes and shuts down more? If we aren’t trying to learn about and mitigate our unconscious biases, we’re saying to our fellow humans that they don’t have worth and that they deserve to be treated as “less than.”
I believe that most people out there don’t intentionally want to treat other human beings as less than equal or as less valuable. The process isn’t easy – in fact, it’s challenging – and it involves being willing to be genuine and being vulnerable and owning our mistakes. I also believe it’s easier to take those risks when you see someone else taking risks and making mistakes. My hope is that if you see someone else trying to do this work, making mistakes and messing it up, yet still trying, then maybe you’ll be willing to take the risk of making mistakes too.