Implicit Bias

Recently, there was an On Being interview with Mahzarin Banaji, a professor who studies implicit biases. I liked what she had to say:

I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of where our less conscious minds are. Our conscious minds deeply believe in egalitarianism, in selecting people based on things called merit, on talent, and not based on the color of people’s skin, or their height, or whether they have hair on their head. And yet, we are doing that.

And so I like what you just said which is “implicit” just allows us to shed that whole sort of moral encasing in which so much of our values about — “Am I a discriminator or not?” — comes. That I am especially interested in, letting people let go of that sort of sense — “I’m a bad human being.” The title of the book, therefore, has been Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. And the “good people” is extremely important to me. I do believe that we have changed over the course of our evolutionary history into becoming better and better people who have higher and higher standards for how we treat others. And so we are good. And we must recognize that, and yet, ask people the question, “Are you the good person you yourself want to be?” And the answer to that is no, you’re not. And that’s just a fact. And we need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement. 

I, myself, am not free from implicit bias. After I listened to the interview, I took Banaji’s test on gender (here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) and found I have a Moderate bias with regard to gender, even though I am a feminist.

Banaji says, “It is my job to tell people to feel uncomfortable, to squirm, to go back and think hard about where they come from and so on…Because if we don’t, we’ve basically given up the most fundamental aspect of who we are and what we prize and value, and what I believe is at the heart of social change…There’s nothing about this issue that is simple, but I have every faith that we will come out of it if we don’t hold back, if we keep talking, and if we try to understand what the other is saying.”

So, let’s talk about it.

For me, I have been thinking about how I’d like to read up more on the history of Asian-Americans in this country. I’d also like to read up on African-American and Latino history in our country as well. I would like to read up on the construction of race. Also, novels. Read more books by people of different races and backgrounds to feel what people’s lives are like in this country and the world. I would like to write about those books here.

The Ocean

More than 10 years ago when I lived in San Francisco I would run the four miles from the Panhandle all the way to Ocean Beach. I’d look at the waves for a few minutes, and then I’d hop on the 5 and take the bus back home.

The whole thing felt rather absurd to me at the time. First, staring at the ocean—who did I think I was, some kind of star of my own indie movie? Second, taking the bus back. I even recently told someone about taking the bus instead of running those four miles back, and he’d laughed at me. I didn’t feel offended because that reaction felt about right. I felt sheepish about it even back then. Why run halfway and then take the bus home? But there was something important about getting to the end, seeing the ocean and that being the reward in itself.

Looking back I can say now that I was running to see that wide expanse of water that stretched out to make a gray line in the horizon. My body somehow knew that I needed to get out and see that. It was all about that ocean. How free it made me feel, how much it cleared my head, even if I hoped no one would see my eyes fixed on it like it would save me. I can say now that it was some form of prayer.

I did not have any special problems. I was not unique in any way from most people living in an urban city who may have felt a little lost and alone. My biggest tragedy at the age of 22 was losing a close group of friends to hang out with in the city. Painful, yes, but not upending. But it wasn’t only that. Nothing seemed right. My job wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though the people there I can say in hindsight were pretty fantastic. I didn’t know where my life was going, and living around the Panhandle, it was pretty gray, a grayness that seemed to seep into my days…

From the outside my life looks so different now. I’m married, I have my family, I have much less free time, and my social circles feel more set. This weekend we went to Monterey, but I also sought out the beach on my own. I went by myself and let myself get pulled into the spell of the waves. I had forgotten how the crashing waves were so unpredictable and arbitrary, how that made me feel in awe.

It’s not just that the ocean is vast and powerful. This is true, but it’s also that the ocean is extremely beautiful. To see it is to see something of real beauty and life force. It forces you away from the screen, from the emails you need to respond to about what you’ll bring to the potluck. It forces you to pay attention and so you do.

Do you know what the problem with my life was then when I was 22? It was that I was so overwhelmed by my problems, by how my life wasn’t perfect, how nothing was going the way I wanted it to, and how ceaselessly impatient I felt. But here’s the real secret of it all that I realize at 35 that I couldn’t realize at 22: that’s just how it is. I still don’t feel like everything has fallen into place, and I don’t think it ever will. When I stood before the ocean in Monterey, my first thoughts were, “Why isn’t it like this? Why is it like this?” I always feel unsettled and uncomfortable, and I always have this strong wish for everything to line up just so. I hate those jagged, uneven edges.

A part of why I was so miserable when I was 22 was that I didn’t/couldn’t see all the wonderful things I did have in my life because I was so fixated on the ideal, on the perfect. I wanted that perfect romantic partner, the group of friends straight out of the show Friends (even though if I had this in real life, I realize now that I would HATE it), and the glamorous, important job where I got to wear pretty outfits to work. Basically, 22-year-old me wanted to live in a romantic comedy. As a result, I didn’t see all the great things going on around me.

Without the crutch of a group of friends I had known for forever, I was forced to get out on my own, meet other people. My life was so rich, and I was starting over and building things from scratch. I was essentially learning how to interact with new people who hadn’t known me for a billion years. I was learning kindness, and the ways that I was not always kind. But I was learning. I had wonderful conversations with so many people. I got to see plays and go to museums. I discovered Mary Gaitskill at the time and had that mind blowing, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could write like that!” moment. I wandered by myself through the city. I had all the time in the world. And this built the foundation that let me become who I am today: interested in the world, curious, engaged, interested in people. I don’t feel like I would’ve developed this if I’d been more comfortable.

David Whyte says that, “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given.” Gratitude requires work. It requires thought. It doesn’t happen naturally. So to pull away and just be able to say, “I appreciate, I am happy despite all these other things that will always be up in the air,” is a form of perspective I lacked then. The nice thing about getting older and having lived my life is that I have developed more patience than I would’ve thought possible. I have learned to have faith that what I put into something will eventually pay off. Not in the way I may want it to, but in the end it will pay off in a way that ends up making more sense than the daydream version I had in my head.

But the ocean to me has always been some kind of reset button, some kind of clearing my brain. We’re built to keep striving and wanting. It keeps us alive, but the truly content people, the ones who can really settle into their life, understand the importance to sit back and enjoy even in the midst of the muck and mire because they know too that those good moments will be gone.

Life is not about wishing for another life or other circumstances because I have yet to see truly anyone with a perfect situation. And there is simply no way to avoid difficulties. Look at the ocean and then walk back into that beautiful, messy life that is waiting for you.