Living Life Well
Our implicit bias
By Jim Shere
When we learn to speak, we learn the language our parents spoke, and most of us learn what to do by watching what they did. The human tendency is to emulate the familiar, and to avoid what seems strange. The roots of affinity are within our family and within our community — as are the roots of racism. Reading these words I’ve written, you may overlook the fact that they are written in English, which nevertheless shapes their meaning and their impact upon the way we think. We seldom wonder what else we learned from our parents that continues to impact the ways we think and behave. When we begin to wonder, we begin to recognize what has been called our implicit bias. And yet opposites do attract, though it is a fascination fraught with imagined danger. I remember the girls of my grammar school taking their bag lunches to one corner of the playground, where they talked and giggled together, while we boys gathered across the way and talked about them. Although we studied one another, we still shied away from direct interaction … but we were curious. Then, with the onset of adolescence, we began reaching out to the dangerous strangers our parents had warned us against before retreating back into the familiarity of the family.
My interest in history is an interest in what it is to be human. I want to understand those who did what they did, though that does not mean I approve. I study history not to celebrate the activities and attitudes of the past, but to understand them, to be inspired by good acts, while recognizing the tragedy of the errors. When I think about such things as neither good nor bad, but simply true, my otherwise resentful mind is freed up to find what can be done about the terrible disparity between the supremacist and the subjugated, the master and the slave.
Fleeing the kingdoms of Europe, our forefathers sought freedom by establishing a democracy in which they could rule their own lives — and in the process, often replicated the conditions they had sought to escape. My first impression of the American colonists was of their great faith and sturdy pluck, and their resilience in the face of hard times as they carved a place for themselves out of the wilderness that they found here. Little was said about the people who were here before them.
It was a Miwok elder who first told me about the Doctrine of Discovery and the devastation that it brought to Native Americans everywhere, North and South. Issued as a proclamation by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493, it essentially established the doctrine that all lands “discovered” belonged to the explorers. The people found living there were considered part of the flora and the fauna, denizens but not owners, not human because they were not Christian. Like the people taken out of Africa and brought along to help subdue the New World, they were all subjugated as slaves.
Although severely misrepresented and misunderstood in certain circles, Critical Race Theory presents a good first step in learning about the injustices of supremacy and subjugation, and what can be done about them. Reparations are the necessary next step, not simply to punish ignorant perpetrators and reward their hapless victims, but as an accounting, an amends for everyone involved — because every one of us has been damaged by this pervasive and bitter inequity.
“Restorative justice” provides a model for what the next steps could be: restoring justice, just as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission did to cleanse the stain of apartheid from South Africa, when Nelson Mandela ascended from the prison to the presidency. In this way, we might recognize that we are all culpable, yet capable of remorse and forgiveness; not to incriminate one another, but to realize the crimes we have all perpetrated against one another, so that we can become witnesses rather than victims.
What is called for is the conscious recognition and acknowledgement of how thoroughly our minds have been shaped by our traditions, and a willingness to step out of the shadow of our heritage and into the possibility of a world shared equally by everyone, where no one carries the burden of contempt. We need to recognize the richness of diversity, without measuring the qualities of civilization as either better, or not.
When clients come to talk with me, I understand they are bringing problems that trouble them. What they often overlook is that they also bring the desire to talk about their problems, to address them, and to account for them. That desire is their health — the health that they bring along with their disease. There is health in the desire to address and account for the things that trouble us and our land. Just as racism and slavery are reciprocal and interdependent, so is the health of the individual and that of the community. Each depends upon the other.
And yet, just as we may overlook the ways we identify our problems through the language that we speak, we often confuse the measure of the things that matter with the things being measured, becoming distracted from the subject by the rhetoric. We are a complicated society, diverse and disparate — and sometimes desperate. We need the opportunity afforded by reasonable minds to appreciate rather than exacerbate our differences. Then, rather than taking advantage of one another, we can take advantage of our rich variety — not with the compromise of a melting pot, but rather with discernment and appreciation for each element within it.
I look forward to a time when our society no longer needs to be troubled by demonstrations against injustice, but instead demonstrates gratitude for our differences — not just between one another, but between what we have been and what we can become, thereby celebrating our complexity rather than living in fear of it. Jim Shere is a psychotherapist practicing in a cabin on Sonoma Creek at Jack London Village in Glen Ellen. He is a member of the Glen Ellen Writers Circle at www. glenellenwriters.com. and has a website at www.jimshere. com. You can email him at [email protected]