ôô

How Being Less Defensive About Racism Will Help You Grow

Becoming an antiracist starts with an important first step—losing our defenses. Confronting the implicit biases we all have means getting uncomfortable ... and it's the only way to grow.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
9-minute read
Episode #311
The Quick And Dirty
  • Everybody has implicit bias because our brains are built to make shortcuts and are influenced all our lives by racially prejudiced experiences.
  • To deny our biases, or to say that we're "color blind," is to keep the forces of racism alive.
  • To become less defensive and get on the path to antiracism, we must first acknowledge that we have biases (implicit or otherwise).
  • Instead of avoiding conversations about racism or explaining away our mistakes, confront these instead.
  • Instead of trying to hold tight to being a "good" person, try to be a better person.

Have you ever called a Black acquaintance you've met multiple times by the wrong name because you mixed them up with another Black person, even though they look nothing alike? Maybe you assumed your white friend's new boyfriend was also white ... until you met him and learned he was Latino. Ever laughed at or made a joke about a hurtful Asian stereotype? What about coming home from a party and suddenly realizing you introduced yourself only to strangers of your own race all evening even though the party was diverse?

I've done these things. And there have been many other times (including some I still haven't realized) when I participated in perpetuating racial prejudice, stereotyping, creating social distance between races, and discrimination.

I genuinely believe I am a good person who is not a racist. The idea of me contributing to racism sends my brain into DEFCON 3 defensive mode.

That sentence was incredibly hard to say out loud. It was especially hard to say without adding qualifiers like “perhaps,” “accidentally,” or “just like anyone else.” And this is because I genuinely believe I am a good person who is not a racist. The idea of me contributing to racism sends my brain into DEFCON 3 defensive mode.

If you can relate to this—or even if you don’t think you can but you do feel uncomfortable talking about racism—today’s discussion is for you. It’s aimed at people who consider themselves “not racist.” It will not be a finger-wagging exercise where I chastise you for being “secretly” racist. Instead, we'll take a compassionate but realistic look at ourselves as imperfect animals with defensive instincts.

What is implicit racial bias?

An important foundation for what we’ll talk about today is the concept of implicit racial bias. This refers to unconscious attitudes and tendencies that happen behind the scenes of what we say and do. These tendencies may not look like in-your-face racism. Nevertheless, they contribute to perpetuating racism in our society.

Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes and tendencies that happen behind the scenes of what we say and do.

Implicit bias is so well-documented in psychology research that there are non-profits and bestselling books devoted to the topic. Instead of enumerating the many research findings here, I’ll refer you to books like Blindspot to get an overview.

What I’ll focus on here is what to do with our implicit bias—or at least, how to take the first step, which is to become less defensive about it.

Much of today’s tips are based on the excellent work of several thought leaders, including Verna Myers, a diversity consultant with a law degree and author of Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing; Dolly Chugh, award-winning social psychologist and author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias; and Ibram X. Kendi, professor and Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and author of the bestselling book How to be an Antiracist. I wanted to center today’s episode around their work because I believe their messages are the guiding principle we need to move from defensiveness to growth.

And the central theme is one that Dolly Chugh put forward—let go of trying to be a good person; instead, be a better person.

The problem with being "color-blind"

I've heard well-meaning people say “I’m color-blind. I don’t even notice or think about someone’s race, so I treat everybody the same.”

Some people roll their eyes or wag their fingers at the term "color-blind." They may view it as a sort of "get out of jail free" card, or as dismissive of a person's racial identity. But laying judgment on people who call themselves color-blind can be confusing. It makes them feel as though they're being punished for trying to practice equality. 

The problem with claiming to be color-blind has nothing to do with political correctness. The real problem is that our brains are simply not designed to be color-blind.

But the problem with claiming to be color-blind has nothing to do with political correctness. The real problem is that our brains are simply not designed to be color-blind. We are constantly—and often unconsciously—categorizing, assuming, labeling, extrapolating. And this, in itself, isn't a bad thing. Our conscious selves don’t have enough time to carefully consider every data point that crosses our brain's path. We need all of these cognitive shortcuts just to do everyday activities like driving or telling jokes.

However, our brains use these same shortcuts when we process racial bias. And yes, I do mean “we”—me, you, all of us. Even minorities. Even people who actively protest racism.

That’s not because we're “secretly” racist. It’s because our brains have been marinating in racially prejudiced social influences our whole lives. We’ve seen way more Black actors cast as thugs in movies. We’ve perhaps felt grandparents tense up when a cousin brought a dark-skinned partner home for Thanksgiving. We’ve watched our friends be less chatty with cashiers who are people of color. All of these subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues, whether or not we consciously agree with them, become data points that drive our brains’ algorithms.

Our brains have been marinating in racially prejudiced social influences all our lives.

So, we end up with brain shortcuts that are biased. And those shortcuts inevitably turn into biased thoughts and actions. Verna Myers, in her TED talk, recounts how she was thrilled to have a female pilot on a flight she took—yay, feminism! But then there was turbulence and she thought, I hope she can drive. Myers readily admits that when things got stressful, she leaned on a bias she didn’t even know she had.

Plenty of research studies on implicit bias show similar patterns with race. For example, we may more easily and quickly associated Black people’s faces with guns instead of tools, and with negative words rather than positive ones.

You can take the implicit bias test for yourself at Project Implicit, a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers whose goal is to educate the public about hidden biases.

These implicit, under-the-radar attitudes do manifest as real-world problems. Healthcare providers give racial minorities less quality care when they hold implicit biases. Teachers’ implicit biases result in lower test performance in their Black students. And those are just a couple of examples among many.

That’s why we can’t be “color blind.” To insist that we "don't see color" is to be in denial. When we’re in denial, we’re part of the problem, so we can’t be part of the solution.

So, take a deep breath and say it out loud: “I have racial bias.”

Understand that participating in racism is not all-or-nothing

We often simplify the very complex issue of race-based prejudice, bias, and discrimination by boiling it down to one word—"racist." Then, we label people, institutions, actions, and ideas as racist, something we all agree is a terrible thing. We then condemn those racist people and things wholeheartedly. And we feel good doing it, because our condemnation seems to leave us standing solidly in the "not racist" safe zone.

But could this all-or-nothing labeling be contributing to our collective denial?

When we boil things down to either "racist" or "not racist," life gets easier. We can pat ourselves on the back and not give racism another thought. Look at us! We've never used the n-word. We have diverse friends. We loudly condemn the white supremacists we see on TV and social media. We're doing all of the "not racist" things, so obviously we're not racist ourselves, right?

When we boil things down to either 'racist' or 'not racist,' life gets easier. We can pat ourselves on the back and not give racism another thought.

Imagine if a medical resident said, "I've never had a patient die on my watch. Therefore, I'm a good doctor and I don't need any more training." Assuming you're immune to racial bias because you've never used the n-word is like assuming you're a good doctor because you haven't lost a patient. It leaves no room to grow.

Assuming we don't have racial biases conveniently makes us “not racist” people feel good about ourselves. But it also puts blinders on us, keeping us from recognizing and changing our implicit biases. It keeps us from becoming antiracists—people who actively participate in the dismantling of racism.

Don’t shy away from talking about race

Talking about race can feel very uncomfortable. It brings up anger, guilt, shame, fear, and all sorts of emotions we’d rather not deal with. In this way, talking about race is kind of like engaging in therapy—you’re actively working on growing as a person, which is only possible if you push past your comfort zone. (In fact, I know that if one of my patients os getting too comfortable in our therapy sessions, something isn't working and we need to start poking at more uncomfortable topics.)

You’re actively working on growing as a person, which is only possible if you push past your comfort zone.

When it comes to talking about race, many people are understandably afraid of saying the wrong thing and looking like a racist. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves or to offend anyone else. But taking this preventative stance misses the point. Antiracism isn't about never putting your foot in your mouth. Instead, it's about actively working to help dismantle racism. This is hard work. It's not something we can do by shutting up and staying in our comfort zones.

Like Verna Myers said in her powerful TED talk, “You’re not going to get comfortable before you get uncomfortable first.” 

So do read about the history and psychology and economics of racism, and do talk about it with your family, friends, colleagues, and classmates. You will make mistakes, but making mistakes is part of growth.

Don’t explain away mistakes—learn from them

Although I'm encouraging you not to shy away from the possibility of making a mistake, that doesn't mean mistakes are totally harmless. Sometimes, the mistakes we make  hurt others. When they do, our first instinct is to explain it away—we were misunderstood, we didn't mean it, it wasn't really our fault because [insert external circumstances].

The instinct to defend ourselves is understandable. Social psychologist Professor Dolly Chugh explains that we are so programmed to protect the way we view ourselves—our identity as a good person—that our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes to ready our defenses. We lean on selection bias—paying attention to and remembering our heroic actions more readily than our questionable ones. We lean on the fundamental attribution error—attributing other people’s mistakes to their character flaws, but our own mistakes to unfavorable circumstances.

As Chugh put it in her thought-provoking TED talk, “We’re working so hard to protect our ‘good person’ identity, to keep out of that red zone [of defensiveness], that we are not giving ourselves the space to learn from our mistakes and become a better person.”

Committing to growth as an anti-racist as a lifelong pursuit

I believe one of the most important concepts on racism is that being “not racist” is not the same thing as being “antiracist.”

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi discusses this in detail in his bestselling book, How To Be An Antiracist, and in his TED lecture on the topic. The central idea is that denying our biases, our racist acts, our complicity in racist structures, is the very heartbeat that keeps racism alive.

Instead, we must actively remind ourselves of how abnormal it is that Black people and other racial minorities disproportionately suffer more health problems, are more likely to live in poverty, and are more likely to be victims of crime and violence. We must pay attention to policies that perpetuate these structural problems. We must figure out our role in these structural problems.

Denying our biases, our racist acts, our complicity in racist structures, is the very heartbeat that keeps racism alive.

For example, one role I've played in these structural problems is being silent for so long on racism as a problem for mental health. As a public educator who reaches tens of thousands, my lack of advocacy on this topic is to be complicit in the structural problem of mental health disparity.

Dr. Kendi puts it simply: An antiracist, first of all, is someone who is willing to admit the times in which they did something racist. In other words, becoming less defensive is the first step to growth. Verna Myers agrees, and also wants us to walk toward the things that make us uncomfortable, to confront our own biases. And, coming full circle to what Dr. Chugh said: “Instead of trying to be a ‘good person,’ try to be a ‘better person.’”

Recommended Resources

Videos

How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them, Verna Myers, TED
The difference between being not racist and antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, TED
How to let go of being a "good person" and become a better person, Dolly Chugh, TED

Books

Books by Verna Myers
How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, Dolly Chugh
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.