Facing our own racism

The last few months have been filled with tragic stories involving police and young black men in the United States – Michael Brown killed in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner killed in New York and Rumain Brisbon in Arizona.

Canada has challenges also. Former Banner editor John Suk’s December sermon “From Hanukkah to Ferguson” points out that in Toronto, black or brown people are four times more likely to be carded by police than are whites. Aboriginal residents make up 25 percent of federal prisoners while they are only four percent of the population.

People debate the legal justifications of shootings and imprisonment, but by any measure it is clear that in both Canada and the U.S. we are struggling with racism.

One thing we can do
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has authored an important new book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson outlines the many ways in which black men are imprisoned for the same wrongs that white men receive other kinds of punishment for committing. As Christians, Stevenson argues that an important step toward making Christ’s mercy real in this broken world is facing and talking about racism.

But how do we do that? There have been hundreds of protests across the U.S. with people calling for all sorts of policy reforms, but it is unclear just what outcome these protests will have. It’s important to speak out against injustice but most of us are not really in a position to impact the policy of law enforcement.

On the other hand, all of us can do more to be aware of the racism embedded in our own worldviews. Lest you think “I am not a racist,” I challenge all of us to think about the term “implicit association” (IA). Implicit association is a social psychology measure framed as a test that examines our unarticulated connections between and among different categories. You can take the test at implicit.harvard.edu. By forcing us to sort words, faces and concepts, and then measuring our response time, the test assesses our unconscious bias. It’s fascinating – and upsetting. Though the IA test isn’t perfect, it does do a very good job at helping us understand that we all have deep biases for the familiar.

Chris Mooney of Mother Jones has outlined several different IA experiments that show the role this implicit bias plays in our assessment of our own safety, which is the key to understanding why police shoot even unarmed suspects. Mooney explains that though we try to be unbiased, our brains take over and impose bias as a means of trying to protect us. Our brains have learned an efficiency of categorizing that helps us perceive danger. Sadly, this efficiency is not always based on accurate data, but the good news is that once we know we have this propensity toward bias, we can take steps to change it. When we admit that we are prejudiced we can learn techniques to trick our brains to associate the “other” as safe or beautiful. As Mooney’s article demonstrates, when employers and police take steps to face their own bias, their scores on IA experiments start to change.

Facing our own racism is important for all of us. People of colour tell me that though large scale racism is hurtful, daily “micro-aggressions” – small, unconscious insults – can hurt even more.

A micro-aggression example
I have a student whom I admire quite a bit. She is a Latina without U.S. citizenship, and she has helped me to understand my own engagement in micro-aggression. A month ago we were at an event, each tasked with hosting a table of dignitaries. I said to her, “Don’t forget to introduce yourself to everyone!” To me, this was a normal reminder. To her, this was a slight; she thought I assumed that as a student of colour without citizenship, she had limited social graces.

I had no idea I had offended her. Months later, when she finally told me about how that day had felt to her, I apologized profusely. I wanted to assure her I had meant no harm, but having recently taken the IA test I also had to ask myself if I would have given that reminder to any student. I just don’t know.

In a fallen world we will always have racism – and I think everyone is racist in their own ways. We have to confront it, learn about it and learn how to combat it. And, even more importantly, we must learn to apologize and forgive.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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