There is no silver bullet. Uprising, racial discord, implicit and explicit bias, unconscious bias, unintentional bias, prejudice, white privilege, discrimination, racism . . . These are complex and complicated situations, conditions and attitudes. There is discord and disagreement about what might work to mend the divide and who needs to be doing what.
What I know is that I have white skin and I am biased. If I had any other skin color, I would also be biased. “Us” versus “them” can be traced to the start of our existence; and has endured.
There is no question about whether we are biased, prejudiced, or — if we have white skin — have white privilege. The starting point is yes, we are, we do. The question is: How do we reduce the bias we have? How can I make a positive impact on systemic dysfunction?
Our unintentional prejudice conflicts with our values. It creates inner discord. It is uncomfortable. We have a cognitive recognition of how we want to behave. But it is not enough to have the thought that we want to be different. If thinking alone could create change, this world would be vastly different. But thinking something doesn’t make it so.
What does create lasting change? Self awareness. Having a cognitive sense of how we want to change. Creating intention. Engaging in repeated and endless practice.
Dr. Patricia Devine has been studying unintentional bias and discrimination for over 30 years. She, Dr. William Cox and their colleagues developed an intervention to break down prejudice. It is the only one that has been studied and shown to produce long-term change in bias.
In short, they provide strategies for disrupting and replacing bias.
- REPLACE REACTION WITH RESPONSE | Recognize that your reaction is based on a stereotype. Label it as a stereotype. Reflect on the source of the stereotype and how it can be avoided in the future. Reject the stereotype. Replace it with an unbiased response.
“I see a black woman walking on an overpass with a lot of bags in her hands. She is wearing flip flops. I think: ‘Homeless. Drugs.’ I REFLECT on my own upbringing in a predominantly white town in the 70s. I have educated myself on the rampant stereotypes of that era and beyond. I then RECOGNIZE that I am repeating the mistake. I realize that are a million probable alternatives having nothing to do with homelessness or drugs. I REJECT that stereotype. I REPLACE it with: ‘I wonder where she’s going with all those bags?’”
- PRACTICE MODIFICATION | Visualize, in detail, a counter stereotype, in abstract or based on a famous person or a personal friend or acquaintance. Include these positive images into a daily practice so that they are immediately accessible when you need to challenge the validity of a stereotype.
“I then VISUALIZE the life this woman may be living. She is walking because her car is currently in the shop. She is carrying a lot of bags because she has picnic food and a few items she is going to donate along the way to her outing. She is finally out of the hard soled shoes she has to wear at the hospital and is enjoying the feeling of air on her feet. These are her favorite flip flops and she could walk in them forever! She is excited because she is meeting her eldest daughter in the park by the water. They haven’t had any alone time for weeks because her daughter is in college.
I INCLUDE the phrases ‘Hard working,’ ‘Enjoys nature,’ and ‘Role model doctor’ in an image I create. I access that image wherever I see anyone who doesn’t have the same skin color as I do. I’m disrupting my automatic thoughts and replacing them.”
- INDIVIDUALIZE | Subvert stereotypical thinking: Focus on details that make someone a unique individual. Pause judgement: Base your perspective on personal attributes rather than group-based thinking.
“I SUBVERT my thinking by envisioning the details of the life I’ve constructed. I INDIVIDUALIZE by thinking about her role as a doctor and mother. How difficult it is to be a physician in a hospital right now, with the documentation and case loads. I notice when I’m reverting to group think such as ‘Oh, she must have had to work so hard to go to med school.’ I PAUSE and realize there is no way I can know anything about this woman’s upbringing!”
- CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE | Pause automaticity: Ask yourself what it would feel like to be in the other’s shoes. Find three things that you have in common with the other. Reduce your automatic “Us/Them” evaluation.
“I think about how good it must feel to be walking in the open air on a beautiful day. How I also enjoy the open air. I also enjoy getting my feel out of shoes. And I prefer not to be in my car at all if I can help it!”
- INCREASE CONTACT | Seek opportunities for greater interaction with members of other groups. Expose yourself to movies, books, and other media from members of other groups [e.g. “Thirteenth,” “Waking Up White, “Dear White People,” White Fragility, When They See Us”].
“I continue to live in a predominantly white area, but I do work with a lot of people of color. I create opportunity to practice reducing my bias in the workplace. I am educating myself on implicit bias of any kind and the history of racism in the US. I SEEK OPPORTUNITIES to create connection.”
- SPEAK UP | Find your voice when you bear witness to discrimination. Remember that allies and authority figures hold power. Concrete instances and modeling are the best learning instances. When possible, offer explanations or viable solutions.
“When I witness bias in others or see it in the flow of the workplace, I address it. I may write an email. I take time to collect myself. I can then point out that the fact that the person is “black” is irrelevant to providing therapy, for instance.”
So what does this have to do with embodied awareness?
Each one of these steps requires the foundational skill of embodied self awareness: The ability to sense what is happening in your body in the present moment. The body reacts before the mind. As Wendy Palmer so aptly states: “My mind is the starting point . . . But it is my body that actually allows me to do [what I want to do] in difficult moments, in the face of low-grade threat.” We can only make alternative choices by first becoming aware of our automatic reactions. The body is the front line to developing lasting, behavioral change.
Consider the actions necessary to disrupt bias: recognize; reflect; reject; replace; visualize; include; subvert; pause; seek; find. How do we do these things?
First you become aware of what is happening in your body. What do you notice? Where do you find yourself more tight? What is happening to your breathing? Sense your body. Having done so, you can then practice settling your nervous system. That will give you the ability to pause your automatic reaction. From that place you will be able to reflect, and include the most salient information. You will have the opportunity to sort through your options and make different choices. And then you can act on your measured interpretation skillfully, remaining calm and composed in the face of pressure. Like when you need to speak out.
And speaking out is exactly what we need to do. Feel free to connect to continue the conversation!