At times, the cacophony of think pieces feels unhelpful. “I get it,” my dad recently blurted, as I picked apart his support for white male 2020 candidates over California Senator Kamala Harris. “All white, straight men are shit. The country should be led by someone else.”
“Exactly,” I replied, rolling my eyes.
Dismissing my dad’s “implicit biases” isn’t productive. Neither is his oversimplification of my feminism. The truth, as Olivia Goldhill unpacks in a 2017 Quartz feature, is that there’s no such thing as unconscious (or implicit) bias in the first place. There are only biases we’re too cowardly to see, or admit.
“The implicit bias narrative also lets us off the hook,” writes Goldhill. “We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious. The forgiving notion of unconscious prejudice has become the go-to explanation for all manner of discrimination, but the shaky science behind the IAT [the Implicit Association Test] suggests this theory isn’t simply easy, but false. And if implicit bias is a weak scapegoat, we must confront the troubling reality that society is still, disturbingly, all too consciously racist and sexist.”
Intellectually accepting this reality is far different than feeling the dissonance of your own racism slap you in the face. The most direct way to feel this dissonance is to be called out on your own biases by someone you trust. Those of us who’ve experienced such accusations should be grateful for the learning opportunity. Hopefully, we respond with questions and thoughtful silence rather than opinions; responding defensively is both weak and self-destructive.
Those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be called out on our racism, sexism, ableism, etc, are not unbiased. Everyone is. Thankfully, there’s a quick exercise to slap yourself in the face with your own blinded perspective on reality. It works, even when you’ve been seriously primed, as you have in this piece (sometimes throat clearing isn’t useless!).
I learned about this bias-exposing exercise via “Crazy; in Bed,” a podcast by comedians Alyssa Limperis and May Wilkerson, in the episode “Feeling Feelings,” featuring comedian Leah Bonnema. The exercise comes from the self-help book You are a Badass, by Jen Sincero, and she poses it in the context of freeing yourself from your negative self-image. Instead of just describing it, let’s do it together:
Step one: If you’re presently sitting in room that’s totally blank white walls and no decoration, pick yourself up and move somewhere else. If you’re in a room that’s decorated, or on the subway, or at your office, that’s great. Stay put.
Step two: Look up from your screen, and take note of everything around you that’s red. Give yourself a few seconds, then proceed to step three.
Step three: Now, without looking up again, tell me everything around you that’s yellow.
Gazinga! I know, it’s disorienting. You thought I was going to ask you to remember everything red. This is how bias works.
When Sicero runs this experiment with clients, she ensures there are various red and yellow things in the room. I’d venture to guess there are various red and yellow things around you, too. Dig your head out of the screen and look for them.
“There was yellow all around the room but you were only looking for red, so you only saw red,” says Bonnema, reflecting on Sicero’s experiment. “For much of life, you [walk around] already deciding what people think based on what is available to you.”
For example, if you think you’re ugly, you walk around looking for indications that other people think you’re ugly, too. Or if you think your colleagues hate you, you’ll walk around picking up on the “red” (the indications that they do, in fact, think you’re trash), rather than the “yellow” (that coworker who asked you to get coffee five times last year, you just never said yes).
The extension to biases concerning race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, class, education, and ability is clear.
Entering the experiment, you probably thought yourself highly capable of identifying colors around you. You probably assumed this was a very objective task, and that your reporting of the reds around you was verifiable truth. You probably thought that I’d ask you to remember all the red things. And you probably thought the experiment would validate your perception and memory: It would be as easy as kindergarten. It sounded fun!
After being asked to report yellow instead of red things, you probably felt silly. You did not remember anything yellow. What even is yellow?
Maybe you felt a little annoyed and angry, too. This experiment was going to make you feel smart, and it made you feel dumb. Feeling dumb sucks, especially when it threatens your self-image as someone who is relatively intelligent, “woke,” or good at seeing colors.
The truth is that every day, each of us walks around seeing our red, and missing the yellow. We note the elements of life that confirm our self-image and narrative reality—and we miss the triggers and details that make reality difficult, painful, or just different for everyone else.
As a white person (even a “woke” white person), you’re going to see a lot of red, and miss a lot of yellow, even when you’re doing your best to stay aware of the yellow triggers making life challenging for people of color. If you’re a heterosexual person, you’re going to miss a lot of the yellow that’s blaring for LGBTQ people. And if you’re a man, you’re going to miss the yellow paint slapped over pretty much every interaction women have in public and private spaces. To you, that shoulder pat was a beautiful shade of red!
The hard part is admitting that even when you aren’t looking for yellow, and don’t remember seeing yellow, it is there, and was there all along. Not seeing the yellow doesn’t make you a bad person. Not admitting its existence does.