What the Hell is Water: Talking to My White Family & Friends About Racism

white and black koi fish

Photo by Nika Akin on Pexels.com

By, Jodie Palmer

This article isn’t for everyone. If you’re white, and you’re questioning racism, keep reading. This is for you. If you’re white and you’ve said you’re not racist, keep reading. This is for you too. If you feel the internal tension between your sense of compassion and equity, and opposition to the current conversation on race, continue on.

I want to be transparent up front. My thoughts here will be criticized on numerous fronts, and will likely be worthy of at least a good helping of that criticism. I invite feedback so I can do better at doing what Love really looks like. Though, I offer an invitation first. Please set down your notepad to respond. Set down your arguments. Hold onto the reflex to get defensive and protective. It’s hard, I know. It’s not how we’re made as we enter into what feels like threatening territory. But, I’m inviting you to do it anyway. For just a moment, explore what if feels like to Listen for Understanding. What I’m attempting to do here is speak in a way that you can hear.


I came across an interesting thread in my social media feed recently. It was in response to a black college professor’s experience of getting stopped by police on his way to work. The professor described the incident in great detail, his own processing during, and the effect of the experience afterward.

For some, the message he was conveying was clear—the experience a black person has with the police, internally and externally, is different than the experience white people have.

For others, the opposite rose to the surface. There was nothing inherently racist in what these officers did. In fact, their response seemed reasonable and appropriate.

Since George Floyd’s death social media has exploded as hotly as the riot fires across America. What the heat seems to be refining into clarity is the fundamental question—Does racism systemically exist in America, or not?

This is a crucial question, and it makes sense to me why white people are asking it.

Racism did exist in America. We all know this—there were slaves, then there was the Civil War, then there was the 13th Amendment, then there were Jim Crow laws, then there was the Civil Rights Movement, then there was the Civil Rights Act, then there was the Voting Rights Act, and lots of actions and laws in between that protect the equality of people of color in this country. Not only have laws and the constitution itself changed, but at every level of worship, work, politics, academia, social engagement, and even in love and marriage we now rub shoulders with our black brothers and sisters.

If we live in a post-60’s Civil Rights Movement America now, and those cops that stopped the Black professor weren’t racist, and our laws aren’t racist, and “I’m not a racist,” then why does the accusation of racism persist?

For some white people, the answer to the persistance of the claim of racism  are Powers That Be pulling the “race card” to sway the game in favor of more power and gain. No doubt, if there is one thing history can teach us it is that nefarious opportunists exist who will take advantage of any virtuous effort.

Yet, that doesn’t explain away the legitimate gap between Black people telling us racism still exists and white people not seeing or believing it.

We know in America there are pockets of actual racists in the traditional sense of the word—people that believe white people are superior, who are discriminatory, prejudiced, and antagonistic at best and deadly at worst toward people of color. But most of us do not see ourselves in any of the ways reflective of that framework of racism.

So the word racist, and racism is often hard for white people to hear or own. It doesn’t fit the communities we know. It doesn’t make sense in our experience. “I don’t see it” is a response I often hear.

If racism is a word you struggle with, what if there were a word that fit better, that made more sense, and made the unseen seen?

As white people, we may not see overt, legalized racism today, yet its existence has nonetheless slowly ground a groove in the collective lens through which we see. A groove that bends the light.

There is a word that describes “bent light” or ways of seeing that are inherently distorted. The word is implicit bias. Okay, that was two words.

“Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decision in an unconscious manner.” http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

I like the General Commission on Religion and Race’s definition of implicit bias even better.

“[U]nconscious thinking that evaluates one group and its members relative to another group even when that thinking does not align with our stated beliefs, values, or commitments.” http://www.gcorr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Implicit-Bias-Workbook-Aug15.pdf

In other words, implicit bias is “what we don’t think we think.”

Implicit bias is not a new idea. In fact, this may not be the first time you’ve heard it. It’s been used to describe the gap between racism we do see and racism we don’t for half a century. We have published works here, here and here that give history, research, and practical understanding of implicit bias.

The myth is that only bad people would be biased, and treat others inequitably. What history and research combine to tell us is implicit bias exists, in every single one of us. Even those who are explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, or anti-whatever needs to change. We are unconscious of the glasses through which we see distortedly.

I was recently offered an introspective challenge about my own implicit racial bias. I thought it would be hard to find anything, as I have friends who are people of color, and I legitimately work very hard at treating and seeing others equitably. I was wrong.

During the challenge I watched the movie, The Mountains Between Us. It’s about a black man and a white woman whose plane crash high in the mid-winter mountains. They have to rely on each other to survive. I decided I’d watch it and just see what happened inside of myself. I was so surprised by what rose to the surface.

  1. At the beginning of the movie the black man took center stage. It wasn’t long before I realized that I kept waiting for the main character to arrive. He was the main character. Implicit bias.
  2. Spoiler Alert: Mid-movie the black man and white woman became sexually intimate. I was so surprised by the feeling of resistance I had to the scene of a white woman and black man having sex. What is noteworthy is that I have friends in mixed-race marriages whom I love, and whose marriages I fully support. Implicit bias.

I was a fish, completely unaware of the water of implicit bias I was swimming in. Until I was invited to look.

The centuries of racism that shaped law, science, financial structures, and social culture are not undone with the winning of a war, or the stroke of a pen, or even through genuine relationship with each other. Though we wish it were enough.

In an interview in the Atlantic, Patricia Devine, psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab, led “a series of experiments that laid out the psychological case for implicit racial bias—the idea, broadly, is that it’s possible to act in prejudicial ways while sincerely rejecting prejudiced ideas. She demonstrated that even if people don’t believe racist stereotypes are true, those stereotypes, once absorbed, can influence people’s behavior without their awareness or intent.”

Devine says,

“There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice, yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren’t good enough.”

White people are being honest when they say they aren’t racist. Black people are being honest when they say they are experiencing harmful racism. Again, what is the gap here? The gap is what is unseen, but experienced—implicit bias.

Film is a powerful way to see what is often unseen in real life. Grey’s Anatomy tackled the issue of implicit bias in its episode entitled, “Personal Jesus.” (Season 14, Episode 10) Trigger warning, it is difficult to watch, especially for people of color. There are many examples of film that help us see the grooves carved out by racism that result in implicit bias. I will list a number of these films at the end of this article. I hope that you will watch some, or all of them, to experience the idea of implicit bias in a new way.

What is hopeful is there is a way to change implicit bias. It is a solution studied and refined by Patricia Devine’s research. Jessica Nordell describes Patricia Devine’s successful process for changing implicit bias in her article for the Atlantic, Is This How Discrimination Ends. Essentially we become alive to our own implicit biases, and then interrupt those biases with choice.

If you question the existence of racism, if you describe yourself as not racist, if you are feeling the tension between your heart and your politics on racism, I invite you into an experiment to explore your own implicit racial bias, where you may be seeing distortedly.


  1. Choose one of the films listed below, or any film that has black and white characters.
  2. Before beginning the film, quiet yourself and check in with your intention to explore your own implicit bias while watching the film.
  3. As you watch become alert to the auto responses that enter your mind or body. Don’t do anything about them, just observe them.
  4. Debrief your experience with someone. The comment section here is a welcome space for debrief.

Here are 9 other ways to explore your explicit bias.

Implicit bias is just one conversation that bridges the gap between what white people see and what black people experience. It’s not the only conversation about racism we have to navigate together. Yet, no conversation is navigated effectively if we are seeing distortedly.

Remember the fish unaware of the water she swam in? There’s another end to that story. This could be the beginning of the end of our story of racism in America

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

-David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.


Films to Explore the Experiences of People of Color

  1. Just Mercy: https://youtu.be/I3vwF6ZpyCM
  2. The Hate You Give: https://youtu.be/3MM8OkVT0hw
  3. Loving: https://youtu.be/bQMF5MSohPA
  4. The Banker: https://youtu.be/IpyUJ9ncoRM
  5. Jane & Emma: https://youtu.be/BkwYD083Tt0
  6. 13th: https://youtu.be/K6IXQbXPO3I
  7. The Best of Enemies: https://youtu.be/zxfWbmmdz9A
  8. Selma: https://youtu.be/x6t7vVTxaic
  9. The Butler: https://youtu.be/DUA7rr0bOcc
  10. The Help: https://youtu.be/aT9eWGjLv6s
  11. The Sun Is Also a Star: https://youtu.be/3On0BXzGnuI

10 Documentaries To Watch About Race Instead of Asking A Person of Colour to Explain Things For You

15 Kid-Friendly Movies to Help Build a Conversation About Race and Racism

If you want to continue your personal learning, consider the following resources as a beginning.

Books to Read

Racial Justice From the Heart, Dr. Amanda Kemp

For Faith-Based Conversations


3 thoughts on “What the Hell is Water: Talking to My White Family & Friends About Racism

  1. I hope that when I say I try to be a compassionate person that it is true. But now I am wondering why my shoes are soggy. When I see myself as understanding how a person feels, now I am wondering why my pant legs are dripping and soaked. Now when I open my life to others in crisis and chaos, I am wondering why does my head feels like I am under something I don’t know what it is and I see bubbles rising before my eyes floating upwards. I am willing to “accept the invitation to explore my own implicit bias. Is there something unseen to see?”
    Don Johnson (Jodie’s father and proud admirer)

  2. Great article. We definitely need to work on overcoming and not reacting to our implicit bias. We also need to work to overcome racism that is happening at levels beyond just the individual–there are structures and systems in our society that have racist consequences. One example of that is funding public schools based on local property taxes rather than all states giving standard per-pupil funding. That has the effect of keeping kids in black neighborhoods (often created by the redlining discriminatory practices of the real estate industry) stuck in underperforming schools, which puts higher education out of reach, which put good jobs out of reach, and thus creates a generational cycle that is hard to escape. Thanks for writing this!

  3. So thankful that I am related to such intelligent, clear thinking humans! I know Jodi was raised by the same intelligence and ancestry.

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