Dear Dr. Al,
Just curious: is it possible for an oppressor to be unaware
(or at least, maybe unreflective) it is acting as an oppressor? Or to put it
another way, are the consequences the same for the lost people if the
oppression is calculated and intentional (for example, U.S. policy to
exterminate Native Peoples during the westward expansion, or Jim Crow laws) or
blindly self-serving (for example, people who argue American values/laws/social
policies are color blind and therefore reject concepts like white privilege,
red-lining, etc.). I’m not phrasing this very well, but I think you probably
get my drift ….
The term “unaware oppression” has
been revised to “unconscious bias” – I suspect, in part because the former term
carries an aggressive tone that the latter does not. Choice of language is, and therefore titles
are, important because they affect the audience’s emotional posture, and readiness
to engage. “Oppression” is an active
term that emotes a feeling of purposeful and calculated dominance. “Unaware”
suggests that you (the larger you) are just running through the market place
overturning people’s goods and livelihoods innocently oblivious to all the carnage
that’s going on around you. I am taking
time on this aspect of your question because terms and titles are carefully
measured. They are not haphazardly
chosen. I am neither agreeing nor
disagreeing with the term – I am pointing out that there is a reason why it is
termed “unconscious bias” and not “unaware oppression.” With the latter, people stop listening right
away. At least you’ll get 5 minutes with
the former. Now let me deal with the
essence of your question.
We all have biases. Biases are natural to our existence. Blonde or brunette? Tall or short? Basketball or golf? Ford or Toyota? Blue or red?
Brown eyes or blue? Comedy or
drama? Country music or pop? Blacks or Asian? Powdered detergent or
liquid? See how easy and natural that
is? I am certain that you were going along just fine until you came to the
Black or Asian one. Then your body went “Ouch!”
Didn’t expect that – did you? Bias is
that simple – and it is that subconscious – and it is that formed and hard to
Where does it come from? Some are natural. Some are learned. Many of the early biases were there to save
us and make sure the species was able to survive. Certain tastes. Certain smells. Certain reactions after tasting
something. Many others are learned…and
learned very young. It’s the “in group” – “out group” thing. Sort of
like the clicks or cliques in school. I
had a great friend (no longer with us) whose then 3-year old daughter clutched
on to her leg for dear life as she observed with great consternation: “You’re
Black!” Her mom was so pained and apologized over and over. That was a very precise observation. I am Black.
In her learned experience, I was “out group.” She recognized it and stated
it. No biggie!
So what’s all the hype about?
It’s the “power over” aspect of bias. That
is the truly insidious part when it comes to human behavior. It is the power over. …and
some humans, some races, some groups have systematic, sanctioned, defended
power over others. When you have power over a person, a race, a
people, a group…and you have an entire system that normalizes that power over,
this is what you get. The unconscious aspect of it is the lack of recognition
that bias is occurring. “Power over” is
so normalized that people are genuinely shocked if you point it out, and are royally
pissed if/when you challenge it. The
sickening part is that although power over is not universal, bias is. Since bias is learned, you can easily be of
the “in group” and hold bias against the “in group.”
Now, remember I told you that some
of it keeps us safe. So what happens if
that “learned bias” is learned within the context of “safety?” Let’s say that you love dogs…but there is
this one type of dog that you will not go near to. You play with every dog you see except this
one type of dog. You have a learned bias
against that type of dog. What is you
level of anxiety when you see that dog? Your
neighbor owns one of those dogs – what would have to happen for you to be
convinced that his dog is not dangerous.
Will that feeling of safety extend to other dogs like that? Why? Why
not? How anxious would you be to go close
to that dog? If a law was passed that stated
that all of those dogs should be terminated, how would you react? Would you be pained of silently relieved?
Remember that I am not dealing with
right or wrong – and a dog is not a human being…but I do want you to feel how
deep this thing called “unconscious bias” is.
Many people try to make excuses for it, or rationalize it.
Going back to the dog analogy: Until
and unless you grow up with that type of dog to know it’s beauty, or you see
more of those types of dogs in helping roles, or starring on television, or
walking the blind, or saving children from fires, or finding illicit drugs at
the airport…until and unless you get enough data to challenge your deep-seated
bias against that dog, NOTHING WILL CHANGE.
UNLESS THERE ARE MORE, THERE WILL NOT BE MORE – AND THE FEW
THERE ARE WILL BE SEEN AS OUTLIERS…DIFFERENT…NOT LIKE THE REST.
Thanks for your question.