Implicit Bias and the Hard Road to Equality

We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us. And those ideas have the power to bias our perception and our actions — despite our best intentions.

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I walked in through a sea of navy-blue uniforms. The auditorium was filled to capacity, with 132 sworn members of the Oakland Police Department sitting motionless with perfect posture: erect, arms crossed. As I walked down the aisle to take the stage, I could not see their faces, but I already knew what they were thinking.

The road to this particular presentation was a long one. The police force was still recovering from a major scandal that had left a legacy of distrust in the community. I was just wrapping up a two-year report that was about to be released to the public — one of the final steps required by the federal oversight team brought in to investigate extensive civil rights violations by members of this department — and I didn’t want the police to be blindsided by our findings. Many in the community were calling for an end to racial profiling. They wanted fair treatment. They were demanding justice. Many in the police department felt they were delivering that justice every day — sometimes at great sacrifice. I wanted to help the officers to understand the insidious ways in which implicit bias could act on human decision-making, despite the officers’ noble intentions and deliberate efforts.

I decided to veer off my usual script, with its statistics, scientific facts, and studies, and share instead a personal story.

I explained that, some years ago, my son Everett and I were on a plane. He was five years old, wide-eyed, and trying to take it all in. He looked around and saw a black passenger. He said, “Hey, that guy looks like Daddy.” I looked at the man, and truth be told, he did not look anything like Daddy — not in any way. I looked around for anyone else Everett might be referring to. But there was only one black man on the plane.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony: the race researcher having to explain to her own black child that not all black people look alike. But then I paused and thought about the fact that kids see the world differently from adults. Maybe Everett was seeing something that I missed. I decided to take another look.

I checked the guy’s height. No resemblance there. He was several inches shorter than my husband. I studied his face. There was nothing in his features that looked familiar. I looked at his skin color. No similarity there either. Then I took a look at his hair. This man had dreadlocks flowing down his back. Everett’s father is bald.

I gathered my thoughts and turned to my son, prepared to lecture him in the way that I might inform an unobservant student in my class. But before I could begin, he looked up at me and said, “I hope that man doesn’t rob the plane.”

Maybe I didn’t get that right. “What did you say?” I asked him, wishing I had not heard what I heard. And he said it again, as innocently and as sweetly as you can imagine from a bright-eyed boy trying to understand the world: “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”

I was on the brink of being upset. “Why would you say that?” I asked as gently as I could. “You know Daddy wouldn’t rob a plane.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Well, why did you say that?” This time my voice dropped an octave and turned sharp.

Everett looked up at me with a really sad face and said very solemnly, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.”

This excerpt is from an article featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. This article really shows just how much information a young child is absorbing from his (or her) surroundings directly and subliminally that adults simply aren’t aware of, and is influencing their perceptions rightly or wrongly as a result.

    Had this incident on the plane not come up with your son, you wouldn’t have known that he had this inaccurate perception that you could educate and correct, and would have been with him for years being reinforced without either of you realizing it.

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