Column #171. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Oct. 1, 2021; in print (minus the final five paragraphs) Oct. 3
“All of us feel bias.” This greeted me in Atwood Memorial Center at St. Cloud State University on Sep. 12 at “The Bias Inside Us,” a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. The verb was chosen carefully: feel. I don’t decide to be biased. I don’t think bias. “Bias is an automatic firing in our brain. … Sometimes, bias feels like a whisper. Other times in comes through like a roar.” It happens so fast we aren’t even aware of it.
The exhibition instructs me about brain mechanisms that generate the whispers and roars. The amygdala, dubbed the “fear center,” is mostly in play – shaped by eons of evolutionary benefit for avoidance of danger.
But that was then, and this is now.
The distinction between “us” (good) and “them” (bad) – in short, “othering” – is no longer a survival tactic. It is a recipe for dysfunction, potentially even extinction.
That’s why the positive option promoted by the exhibition is so important: “Just as we can fortify our biases, we can also disrupt them: retrain our brains to see the world (and ourselves) differently.” Another careful verb choice: disrupt – not just change. And holding up the mirror: a new view of ourselves.
The exhibition introduced a term new to me, both amusing and instructive: mindbugs. These are “engrained patterns of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.” I realized that much of my life recently has been an effort to detect in myself and then swat the mindbugs of white supremacy, patriarchy, racism – mindbugs that constitute an ages-long pandemic.
What the Smithsonian put together prepared me for the most important book I’ve read in years: "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together," by Heather McGhee.
Reading a book, by itself, doesn’t change me, but it can alert me to errors in how I perceive and provide tools to disrupt my biases.
McGhee’s fundamental premise – “everything we believe comes from stories we’ve been told” – lines up with “the bias inside us.” The story that has done the most damage throughout American history – “one of the most powerful subterranean stories in America” – is the zero-sum game: If someone else rises, I necessarily fall. Zero-sum is always at hand to block any collective action that benefits us all.
It’s a story suited perfectly to the purposes of those on top, those in power (originally propertied white men, and still not all that different, given the influence of the wealthy in our politics), who can divide and conquer those below them by foisting a tale that progress for people of color means a loss for white people who are not themselves among the elite.
The way we are taught about belonging, about competition, about status – all of this feeds into the whispers and roars we hear when our brains automatically fire. When McGhee says that “the advantages white people had accumulated were free and usually invisible, and so conferred an elevated status that seemed natural and almost innate,” I have to admit she has me in her crosshairs.
McGhee set out to piece together a new story of who we could be to one another, and to glimpse the new America we must create for the sum of us – what she calls a Solidarity Dividend.
One popular “solution” that only makes matters worse is one I used to adopt: “I don’t see color.” “Colorblindness,” which I thought made me enlightened, prevented my seeing how deeply embedded racism actually is. McGhee nails it: “People often talk about putting a new racial lens on your work, but I found it was more like taking off blinders to see what we’d been conditioned not to see.” My colorblindness was just blindness, period.
McGhee’s research demonstrates myriad ways in which racism damages white people.
One example she uncovers is a paradigm of racism’s devious undermining of the white people who suppose it benefits them.
When public swimming pools were officially desegregated, cities and towns across the nation chose to close them, fill them with dirt and plant grass, or to turn them into private membership clubs. The Supreme Court “held that a city could choose not to provide a public facility rather than maintain an integrated one, because by robbing the entire public, the white leaders were spreading equal harm.”
“Equal harm.” Surely America can do better than this as an interpretation of “created equal.”
McGhee establishes that where white supremacy and racist structures predominate – where these mindbugs have infected the intellectual and spiritual groundwater we all drink – diversity morphs into zero-sum “othering,” and people of all ethnicities are harmed, excluded, denied opportunities. To exorcise these mindbugs, we’ve got to retrain our brains individually, and – as a society – disrupt racial hierarchy and capitalize on the Solidarity Dividend.
— This is the opinion of Times Writers Group member Patrick Henry, retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. His website is www.IronicChristian.org. His column is published the first Sunday of the month.