My latest posts have delved into the different types of micro aggressions. One of the most pernicious and yet most common microaggressions is the denial of one’s own biases. The denial of one’s own biases is often committed among those who at least consciously stand against racism. The accusation of racism often is a threat to their own identity as non-racists or even antiracists. Thus, those who deny their own biases often use their privilege to cause a shift in conversation from their possibly biased actions against people of color to their own hurt.
Everybody, regardless of race or gender identity, has implicit biases as a result of being raised in a racist society. There’s no way around it. By nature, human beings, from birth, create schemas or mental boxes to understand their world. In response, Linnaeus (1735) in Systema Naturae created mental boxes for his contemporaries that defined four, hierarchical, social classes based on the color of our skin. At the top of this structure was the pseudoscientific category of Homo sapiens europaeus to which he attributed the color white and positive characteristics such as beauty and intelligence. At the bottom of the structure was the pseudoscientific category of Homo sapiens after to which he attributed the color black and negative characteristics such as beastliness. In between, he had categories for Asians and Native Americans. This racist structure, now hundreds of years old, became so embedded in our society that it continues to influence both our perceptions and the systems that guide our society. As antiracists, our job is to constantly identify these biases and challenge rather than deny them.
Unfortunately, often when people of color try to point out the biases and microaggressions to a white person that cause BIPOC individuals harm, an action which in itself requires courage, the response from the white person in the conversation is absolute denial of bias in one of two ways. The first way of denying bias is the tooting of one’s own antiracist horn. “I participate in Black Lives Matter marches.” “I teach Latino children.” “I’ve adopted minority children.” “My best friend is Black.” The other way of denying bias is by placing blame on the person of color. “You’re playing the race card.” “You’re being over sensitive.” These statements, while effectively denying one’s own biases, automatically negate the experiences of the person of color, essentially gaslighting them into questioning their own experiences. They stop the conversation instead of allowing both parties to examine actions and structures that need to be stopped or dismantled for a more just society.
Even worse are what Dr. Robin DiAngelo calls “the liberal white woman’s tears.” DiAngelo explains that when the white person cries when discussing race, that person essentially “weaponizes their tears” to decenter the experiences of people of color and center the experiences of the white participants in the conversation. The person who is actually hurt by racist structures is now in a position where they have to feel guilty about bringing up their own struggles and instead, has to comfort the person possibly causing the harm or at least benefitting from the structures in place. Furthermore, crying in itself is a form of privilege considering that people of color do not get to cry every time they are confronted with a racist situation.
While all of the above are examples of denials of bias during an encounter with race, there are also those who preemptively deny bias even when race is not a topic of discussion. For example, I once worked with a principal, who the very first time we met, told me that she had participated in the district’s antiracism training and didn’t have any biases. Through this statement, she preemptively made clear that she did not want to participate in any discussions about racism although many of the teachers she supervised expressed that they felt large amounts of racism at the school she led.
Overall, denying bias clearly gaslights people of color who are experiencing bias and prevents conversations that can help further the movement against racism. Simultaneously, accepting one’s own bias never takes away from a person’s antiracist actions such as participating in a BLM march, voting against overtly racist politicians, or teaching students of color. Accepting or at least contemplating one’s own biases is an antiracist action and should never conflict with a person’s identity as a good individual, as a liberal, as a WOKE person, etc. Introspection and action are the two greatest friends of antiracism, and all of us, regardless of race, have to continuously engage in this practice.