be the light

Bias, racism, discrimination, and invisibility

I’ve thought a lot about the current situation regarding protests for racial justice and my thoughts are all over the place:

  • What can I do?
  • Am I racist and have I let race rule my thinking?
  • Is it time for self-examination in general? 
  • What are my biases?
  • What is racism, anyway?
  • No form of racism is good, but there are definitely different degrees of it, aren’t there?

What is it?

Racism is a noun. A thing. Defined by dictionary.com as:

  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Definition #3 is probably what most people think of when they call some one a racist, “hate and intolerance.”

Definition #2 has to do with the idea of systemic racism, such as Jim Crow laws and redlining, as well as “discrimination.”

And according to definition #1, thinking a group or individual is a certain way, positive or negative, because of their race is racist.

But can’t that also be bias? We all have biases we don’t even think about. How can bias always be bad? Except for racial bias, which can lead to stereotypes and discrimination. (For an interesting discussion about racial bias, go to Speaking of Psychology: Understanding your racial biases)

I accept that I have biases, but I’m not aware of racial biases? Do I have those too? And at what point do biases become racism and descrimination?

George Floyd’s murder and the protests that have followed have sparked serious self-examination and memories of conversations, experiences, and books about racism and discrimination.

One experience stands out in my memory. It has to do with being invisible.

Racism and invisibility

When I was in college forever ago I had the most amazing teacher for an American Lit class. He was a tall, balding, bearded man who wore very thick glasses to aid his low vision. My teacher was legally blind, and used a white cane to help him get around campus. 

He was big on class discussion and literary analysis and I wasn’t the most diligent student, but I loved books and could talk about them all day, every day. I loved that class. 

In the Spring semester he assigned The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The book is about a black man who has been through something that has made him invisible, not because he is a ghost, but because people refuse to see him.

To my 19 year-old sensibilities, the work was deep and I muddled through it thinking I had a decent understanding of the novel. 

But when I got toward the end, the story took a strange turn and I was lost. I couldn’t understand what was going on when the main character took on several different personas all at once. 

I decided to visit my teacher during his office hours for some insight. 

The question that stumped me was,  Who was the main character at the end of the story? 

I went back and forth with my teacher in an attempt to analyze the work. He asked me questions meant to develop my understanding, but I was still confused. 

It doesn’t matter what you think

Then our discussion got personal. He asked about assumptions we make about people. He used himself as an example: Why would people assume that I need help opening a door? I’m able-bodied, I just can’t see. Why would someone see me coming half-way down the hall and stand there holding the door open for me while everyone stands back and watches me pass?

He seemed irritated by the gesture, which surprised me because that’s something I could see myself doing. 

I responded, I think people are just trying to help. 

He said, People assume I can’t open a door for myself because I use a walking cane. They don’t know me, but assume they know what I need.

We must have continued to discuss and I must have continued to make my case in the spirit of, Why wouldn’t you just accept people’s thoughtfulness. 

Then he gave another example

He elaborated on the idea of making assumptions and then drove his point home by saying, It’s the same as someone assuming you’re a certain way because you’re Mexican. 

I hadn’t expected that at all and I must have looked stunned, like he’d just slapped me.

He said: When you came to me wanting to enroll in the class, I really didn’t want to let you enroll. I thought, Who is this Mexican girl thinking she can sign up so far into the semester? This is a 2nd year English class. We’d already read a novel that you totally missed. (Well…you see…what had happened was I wanted to drop an 18th Century British Lit snoozer class and enroll in his American Lit class, but it was so far into the semester I needed special permission to make the switch.)

His first impression of me exemplified his bias, prejudice, and even racism. He had thought of me as a late (true) Mexican (also true) who probably wasn’t very smart (false) and not a very good student (It’s complicated). 

But he came to realize he was wrong about me, just like people who assumed he needed and wanted help were wrong about him.

His racial bias caught me off-guard. I would have never guessed I had made such a negative impression on him, but that example helped me understand Ellison’s character and who he was at the end of the book. 

Class discussion about conclusion of The Invisible Man

In typical form I was late to the final discussion on The Invisible Man and snagged a seat by a window close to the back of the crowded classroom that seated probably 40 students of all different majors. 

He stood behind a podium at the front of the classroom and posed the big question to the class. Who is the main character at this point in the story? Different characters call him by different names and he seems to transform into a different person every time. Is he any of them? Is he all of them?

It was one of those lively class discussions where hands shoot up with students eager to get the right answer. 

But none of them did. I had my hand raised too but he didn’t call on me until the rest of the class was out of ideas. 

Finally he called on me and asked, Who is he? 

I said, It doesn’t matter who he is. 

And a girl with perfect hair said, Well then why are we talking about it? 

The whole class laughed. 

He ignored the outburst and pressed further, Why doesn’t it matter?

I said, Because people didn’t see him. They saw who they wanted him to be. To the people he encountered (not just white people either) he was who and what they thought he was. 

The person he wanted to be, his dreams, abilities, aspirations, family, heritage, or plans for the future didn’t matter a bit. 

That’s what made him invisible. 

Just like my teacher and I were invisible to each other when we first met, it turned out. Our biases caused us to falsely assume things about each other, like character, attitudes, and values.

“Otherness” and me

Not being racist is not enough.

When my biases cause me to assume a person thinks and behaves a certain way because of the color of their skin, heritage, gender, physical difference, language, religion, socio-economic status, level of education, or some other “otherness” they become invisible to me. 

If I think, I’m not racist. I’m not the problem, and continue just as I am without examining my own biases and prejudices, then I’m not doing enough to be part of the solution. I can do better. 

I wonder if future generations will understand any of the current protests and calls for social and racial justice. Will they think it insane that policy based on bias, racism, and discrimination went on for so long? Will they be grateful for the more just and inclusive framework they enjoy?

I hope so.

On a related note, read Words and actions reflect your personal policy on the blog.

goals

What you can do now to help you reach your goals

You know things don’t happen by themselves, that your plans, dreams, aspirations, bucket list items, things you’ve always wanted to do…don’t just happen by themselves. 

Action is required. Your action. 

At times of uncertainty, goals may be the furthest thing from your mind.

Like now, when the world seems at a standstill and COVID-19 is affecting communities, families, and individuals directly, it’s easy to think, what I want is not important right now. 

Maybe your dreams and aspirations aren’t a matter of life and death, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. 

And if you take action now, you’ll be in a better position to reach your goals when the Coronavirus crisis is history.

Here are some things you can do now:

Set your goals. 

Time goes and goes. Days turn to weeks and weeks to months and months to years…you get the idea.

If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but have never developed a plan for how to accomplish it, there’s a good chance it’s a wish and not a goal.

What makes it a goal?

  • First, believe you can do it, even if it seems like it could never happen.
  • Then accept the vulnerability that comes with that big goal.
  • Next, and possibly most important, you must devise a plan to make it happen. 

If you take those first steps toward your goals, you’re on your way. If not, it may be just a wish.

Goal or Wish?

I’ll give you an example of something I used to want to do, but only ever wished it, like a dream, and never made it a goal. 

I used to, in a Walter Mitty kind of way, want to be a backup singer. I dreamed of doing the moves old school, like the Pips did for Gladys Knight. 

Never did it. Probably never will, but OMG that would have been amazing.

Either because I didn’t think I could, didn’t know how I would, or just didn’t have the courage to make it real, without a plan to make it happen, being a backup singer stayed a wish for me, not a goal. 

Now, the only backup singing gigs I have are in my mind as I dance and sing in my living room or on the occasional Karaoke night : ) 

Don’t let this be you!

Set your goals. It’s okay if they seem slightly out of reach, maybe even crazy and unattainable.

Then come up with a plan to make them happen.

If you’re not sure exactly what goals you want to set for yourself, you’re first step may be to dig deep and explore some ideas about what you’d like to do.

And try not to look at it as a test. There are no right or wrong answers and it’s okay if you start something and then find it’s not what you thought it would be. You’ve learned something in the process.

Have a plan to work toward your goals. 

Don’t keep them all in your head. Write them down, post them someplace, come up with a plan to meet them, jot down incremental goals in your calendar.

Find whatever works to help you keep them at the forefront of your mind. Break the steps into small, attainable goals to keep you from being overwhelmed and giving up before you start. 

Do what you can. 

These days of social distancing and sheltering in place are not normal. You may not be able to do everything you normally would, but you can still do a lot.

Reach out to people who you trust and who may be able to help or advise you about how to move forward. You may find there’s a lot that’s out of your control, but even if you can’t do everything you’re used to doing, there’s still a lot you can do. 

Approach with enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Think about it. Why would you want to work toward something you’re not excited about? When I was working on my first book, I had days when I felt not even an ounce of enthusiasm about what I was doing. Those were long and dark days, perfect for giving up. 

What a different experience to approach with enthusiasm. I felt a greater sense of accomplishment when I met my daily goals, felt greater compassion toward myself and my work, knew I was in it for the long haul, and felt more determined to finish. 

Doing these things:

  • Setting goals
  • Developing a plan
  • Doing what you can
  • Approaching with enthusiasm

are simple first steps you can take now to help you build momentum toward reaching your goals.

I don’t believe it’s End of Days. We’ll get through this uncertain time, but it’s a good reminder that none of us has forever to do what we always thought we would do.

Action is required. Do what you can now to move you closer to your goals.

Need some inspiration to get started on setting your goals? Check out If not now, when? on the blog.

axe throw

Deep thought for the day: Who are you?

My family and I were big fans of The Walking Dead a few years ago. It sparked some interesting discussion around what we would do in the unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse.

My son and husband went through a bow and arrow phase, then an axe-throwing phase.

It’s for fun and recreation, of course, but we also joked about it being great training for the Zombie Apolalypse.

We’d imagine banding together as a family to fight off zombies in a Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead way, not in a Night of the Living Dead or Walking Dead way. The latter being way too terrifying.

It’s a joke we can run a long way with, for sure.

But we’re not bomb shelter, doomsday preppers kind of people. We don’t have a closet full of canned food or MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat).

And although we kid about preparing for the Zombie Apolcalypse, it did raise some interesting discussions about what we would do in the event of an actual catastrophic event. 

COVID-19 pandemic is not the Zombie Apolalypse, but it has disrupted every aspect of our lives.

And it’s got me thinking about human nature and the way we humans act in times of uncertainty. 

The saying goes, We show our true selves in times of crisis. 

So the question is, who are you? (Matt Damon’s character asks the question in the movie Ford vs. Ferrari which I streamed this past weekend so I’ll just borrow it here. Great movie, BTW.)

Am I the type of person who’ll do anything for my family, including buying up all the toilet paper and clearing the shelves of hand sanitizer and masks so I can turn a profit on eBay?

Because I can make a nice profit and my family needs to live too. Supply and demand, baby. You need hand sanitizer, can’t find it, don’t mind spending $10 on something that costs me a dollar? Sold. 

Hey, extreme circumstances, y’know?

These are not normal times, for sure. And what can any of us do about it? We’re just trying to make it through.

Before I judge that guy, I can look at my own actions. Am I acting in a responsible and ethical way?

I’ve been looking for a dozen eggs for a while. Haven’t found any. But the terrible thing is, I have about a half dozen. Why am I looking for something I already have?

The current situation: Mark and I have what we need even though it may not be exactly what we want.

Plus, we’ve ordered plenty of takeout in an attempt to do what little we can to help our local businesses. And so we don’t have to cook.

Those are little things.

Some people are doing big things. Health care workers, public servants and non-profit staff and volunteers who care help people in the community are at the front lines of this thing. They may have to make tough choices that affect lives and livelihoods.

Not me. My job right now is to do what I can, like don’t panic buy, follow social-distancing guidelines, and stay home.

That sounds so much less bad-ass than fighting off zombies, but that’s where we are.

We show our true selves in times of crisis, or said another way, as you pass the days with the current COVID-19 reality, consider the question: Who are you?

Interestingly, this is not the first blogpost in which I reference zombies : ) For another, read Violence in a zombie world