What the Hell is Water: Talking to My White 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’re anti-racist, keep reading. This is for you too.

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, are different than the experience white people have.

For others, it was the opposite that 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 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. This is our world now.

So, why does this question of racism persist?

For many white people, it feels like the “race card” is just being pulled from the deck to sway the game in favor of Someone(s) seeking more power and gain.

However, there is a legitimate gap between Black people telling us racism exists and white people believing them.

We know in America there are powerful 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 feel or behave in any of the ways that are reflective of that framework of racism. Let’s all praise the Lord for that!

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 is the accusation of racism so loud? It just doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t see it.

What if there were a word that did fit, that made more sense, and made the unseen seen?

Though we may not see overt, legalized racism, it has nonetheless done the work of slowly grinding a groove in the collective lens through which we see, which bends the light.

There is a word that describes “bent light” or ways of seeing that are inherently distorted. The phrase 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/

Implicit bias is not a new idea. 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.

What is indisputable is that implicit bias exists, in every single one of us. Even those who are explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-whatever needs to change. We are unconscious of the glasses through which we see distortedly. We are fish, unaware of the water we’re swimming in.

I was recently offered an introspection 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 me. 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 described, “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 tell us they do experience harmful racism. What is the gap here? The gap is what is unseen, but experienced—implicit bias.

What is hopeful is that there is a way to change implicit bias. There is a way to close the gap between what we see and what someone is telling us they experience. It is a solution studied and perfected by Patricia Devine’s research. If you’re not racist, put your money where your mouth is and take the invitation to explore your own implicit bias. Jessica Nordell describes Patricia Devine’s successful process for changing implicit bias in her article for the Atlantic, Is This How Discrimination Ends.

Remember that 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


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