AIF Blog

An Honest Conversation about Implicit Bias

Nov 09, 2015
CATEGORY: Society, U.S.A.
Joe Brewster
Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates is considered one of the country’s foremost essayists on the subject of race, and his recently released book, Between the World and Me, continues to stir the discussion of what it’s like to be black in America. Taking up the intertwined subject of implicit bias—another very current issue—was a panel, including Coates, at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival.
“Implicit bias is unconscious racism or unconscious thoughts we have about people who are different from us,” explained filmmaker and author Michèle Stephenson at the outset of the thoughtful and powerful session called Implicit Bias: The Reality. “We see race as being like the air we breathe: sometimes we’re conscious of it, sometimes we’re not, but it’s part of our every cell.”
Stephenson and three other panelists, her partner Joe Brewster and award-winning documentary filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz, showed three short films they collaborated on, part of a series called The Conversation that is meant to open the dialog about race. The op-docs — A Conversation with My Black Son, A Conversation about Growing Up Black, and A Conversation with White People about Race — feature people telling very poignant personal stories about implicit bias and provided the springboard for the panel’s more widespread discussion.  
Gandbhir, whose children are African American, recounted talking to her son about racial profiling, and how the police are just as likely to harm him than to protect him. “It’s a conversation that’s been happening in the African American community for generations,” she said. “It’s an open secret.”
Peltz, who works with Gandbhir and considers her a close friend, pointed out how her conversation with her three white sons is completely different. “I tell them, when there’s trouble, the first place they should go is to the police,” she said.
Brewster theorized that the kinds of conversations parents have with their African American sons can be quite harmful to the kids.
“I’m imagining my son living in a world where he has to ignore his reality, that he’s treated different from the same kids in his class, that he has to walk different when he walks into a store,” said Brewster. “What does that create? That creates a psychotic.” 
Coates argued that after 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of Jim Crow and 50 years of supposedly equal civil rights, Americans have never really dealt honestly with the issue of race. And that feeds into a law enforcement and justice system that is fundamentally unbalanced.
“African Americans are paying for protection when what they actually receive is endangerment,” said Coates. “You literally pay money into a society, you obey the laws, and do all the things you’re supposed to do, and you don’t get the same protections. That’s robbery, that’s swindle. It’s a constant taking.” 
And while the panelists promoted more honest conversation as part of the answer, they acknowledged that even an open dialog is difficult.
“It’s white denial and white fragility that impedes a conversation that progresses,” said Gandbhir.
Underlying it all is implicit bias.
“We’ve all internalized the system of institutionalized racism; anyone who has grown up in this society has internalized it,” said Stephenson. “We all breathe this air and exhale it. If we can’t reflect what we’re trying to change externally, in our day-to-day interactions, then how much are we really changing?” 
Listen to the entire session here.
By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger