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How To Unsee What's Been Seen

Updated: May 31

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.


I’m a wonderer. When I read a book, it sparks all kinds of new thoughts. I find myself immersed and at the same time released into realms beyond my routine, expanding my mind, and questioning the limits that bound me. Sometimes these expansions are quite small, like a novel nudging me to contemplate how little I know about hedgehogs. Then there are books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo that broke down the comfortable confines of naivety and ripped away the veil that protected me from seeing how I contribute to the systemic injustice of our society.


With the blinders off I was at a loss. The reality and breadth of white supremacy towered before me. I could not unsee what I had seen. And at the same time, I knew there was a lot I did not know.


I’m going to be frank and vulnerable here. Learning about systemic racism and anti-racism is a rollercoaster ride, a jumble of conflicting emotions. I felt both an urgency to do something, and paralysing ignorance of not knowing what that something was.


I don’t know why, but I’m reminded of Atreyu, the hero from the 1984 kid’s movie The NeverEnding Story. He sets out on a quest to save Fantasia from the Nothing, full of optimism, and later almost drowns in the Swamp of Sadness, crestfallen by the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of him.


While this may seem like an obscure and old reference, I’ve thought about Atreyu quite a bit over my adult life. It’s only now, writing it down for others to read that I realize that movie had a big impact on me as a kid. Some stories just stick with us, I guess.


Moving on. Where was I?


Yes. Blinders off. Jumble of emotions.


I had two options. I could do something, or do nothing. Such is the experience of a white person learning about racism. My privilege allows me the choice. My moral compass, however, does not. Like I said. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen.


Ironically, what I am interested is just that, but from a different angle.


Image by Paul Skorupskas on Upsplash

Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, is an unconscious attitude or belief, prejudiced based on past associations. Think stereotypes. The crazy thing is, one’s unconscious bias can be in direct contradiction from their conscious opinions. So, while a white person may say “I don’t see colour” (an absurd claim unless you are colour blind), that same person may still become tense when talking with a black person. Their physical response in this case is telling of the unconscious bias.


Where do they come from? I’m not going to get into it too much here, since I talked a lot about biases in This Story Is Eerily Familiar. Simply, it’s an efficient way for our brains to learn and categorize. Quite the evolutionary advantage. Until the unnatural modern environment we live in today, that is.


You may be asking yourself: do I have unconscious bias?

The answer is: Yes. Yes, you do. We all do.


Next question: what can I do? How can I undo the associations of a lifetime, to unsee all the things that contributed to these biases in the first place? One way to make positive change is to address my own biases, and to consciously shift them. But, how can I change something that is unconscious?


As sure as mindfulness, soul searching, and education would be required, I thought it would be nice to find an easy way to get started. I needed data.


I found a series of tests here at Project Implicit, a non-profit “…committed to advancing scientific knowledge about stereotypes, prejudice, and other group-based biases.” Personally, I love taking surveys and quizzes. Yes, I’m that person that answers an enthusiastic “yes!” when called for a telephone survey. I like considering new questions. Again, I’m a wonderer.


I’ve taken four of the tests so far. I’m working my way through the list. No big surprises yet, but simply reading through the list of available tests is cause for pause. Skin-tone, sexuality, race, weight, gender, age, disability, etc, etc. Each one is an opportunity to think about the experience of the non-dominant individual in each of these categories.


Identifying some of my own biases felt like a good start. Now that I’m naming it, how do I tame it?


In A Small Spark Can Light The Way – Just Don’t Over Think It, I discussed the impact of storytelling on our view of reality, declaring “…any content we subject ourselves to can have an influence on our perception of what is normal and acceptable.” It should be no surprise to those that read that article, that I am increasingly selective and critical of the books, movies, TV, music, and news I consume. Still, there are biases that are already deeply ingrained. What of those?


This is an interesting question with no cut and dry answer yet, and it probably is going to take a cumulation of several strategies. What can I say? Change is hard. Building relationships with people of another race, for example, can help change the familiarity bias. Educating yourself about others experiences and anti-racism can help eliminate blind spots, guiding us to question assumptions and act mindfully.


Another way to combat bias is friction, as described by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, an authority on unconscious bias, and author of the book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. Friction is a kind of engineering control, and can be designed into a system to cause people to slow down and reflect. In this Science Magazine article she describes an example of friction for a consultation she did for Nextdoor, a social networking app where neighbours connect. The company wanted to eliminate racial profiling that occurred when users reported suspicious activity in their neighbourhood. With her consultation, they created a three-question checklist that required users to first describe suspicious behaviour and then be specific about appearance. They also prohibited racial profiling and had clear definition of what that is. The act of slowing down reflecting resulted in a 75% reduction in racial profiling.


I’d like to sign off by wrapping this article up with a neat little bow. Ideally, I’d say something witty or inspiring. Unfortunately, that’s not how this work goes. Bias is not static—every experience contributes to it. It can change, a little bit of at a time. With mindfulness, soul searching, education, honesty, and humility, I’m determined to change mine. And hopefully, that effort can impact others in my life, too.


Want to learn more about unconscious bias? Check out The New York Times mini-documentary series named Who, Me? Biased? that talks about biases further, each video about five minutes. Or if you’re looking for something more in-depth, check out the full-length documentaries Bias (2018) and Coded Bias (2020).


We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, email us, or connect through the Book Interrupted Book Club Facebook group!


Want to get more involved? You can join us on the show for a full 6-week book cycle. The current book, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, was chosen by Book Interrupted fan Squiggy. Find out more by going to our fan page at www.bookinterrupted.com/fans. The submission deadline for the next fan book is June 1, 2021.


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