Privilege and Bias: Awareness First

01/02/2017 04:18 pm ET

As I reach the end of an engrossing novel, I want to be left alone. As I finished Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things over the holidays, I found myself dabbing my eyes – over and over. Some of it was a response to the story itself. But most of my emotion was to the “message” in the story, which is about prejudice, privilege, racism -- and hope.

I won’t spoil the story for you, but, in essence, a white woman attorney thinks she already knows the meaning of “racism” as she confronts a White Supremacist seeking revenge in criminal court. She represents the black woman from whom he seeks revenge. The lawyer begins to see that “racism” has forms other than overt hostility -- some subtle and invisible. She confronts “racism” in her own (understandable) ignorance of the privileges that go with being white.

I have written about the term “bias” and why it is not a “four letter word.” We resist that term as if it is a grave accusation. In fact, bias is part of the normal human condition. In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores the brain science of bias. Bias, he shows us, is the product of the normal human brain. We are not bad, but normal, because we have biases. (If you think you have none, give me a call!)

The term “privilege” elicits a similar response. We deny we are “privileged” or part of a “privileged” group as if that would mean we are personally guilty of atrocities to non-white groups or personally at fault because our ancestors owned slaves.

Consider a less accusatory form of being “privileged”: being less likely to be subject to cultural biases (conscious and unconscious) than others are. Picoult’s character begins to see her privilege. She sees that, unlike her client, she is not assumed to intend shoplifting in a nice store, does not celebrate a day because she isn’t stopped and frisked, and “can be late for a meeting and not have it blamed on [her] race.”

My friend Gayle, who is black, opened my eyes to this several years ago. Sitting with three white women, she asked us, “Do you feel white?” We did not. Gayle told us that, unlike us (white women), she thinks of herself by her race first. Picoult’s character poses the same question. She suggests that white people do not identify as white simply because “We don’t have to.” “Those of us who were lucky enough to be born white are oblivious to that good fortune.”

So why did this novel make me weep? I wept with recognition of my own privilege – and my own commitment to be conscious of my privilege and my biases. I wept because the story validated the premise of my work – that the first step in reducing bias is to become aware of our own bias. I wept because I have seen how awareness of privilege can reveal unconscious biases, and how those biases create obstacles for others simply because they are “different.” My emotional reaction confirmed that I still feel called to find more and better ways to help reduce unconscious bias.

Thank you, Jodi Picoult for taking on this difficult, timely and critical subject!

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