The Public Humanist

We Are All Racist: Using Storytelling to Overcome Implicit Bias

blind spot

“Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence. In talking with others about hidden biases, we have discovered that most people find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware.” — Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

As the artistic director of a theater company, I feel a personal responsibility to shed light on the issues our society faces through the art we produce, present, and commission. One of the most important issues of our time is increasing racism and discrimination against marginalized people. Our Civil Rights movement never erased our discriminatory past; it’s remained (at best) under the surface of our culture all along. We failed to root it out and with tacit approval from the highest levels we are now looking at it directly in the eye. What do we do about it?

I can think of two things: 1) acknowledge our implicit bias; 2) tell stories to help overcome it. Allow me to explain.

Implicit bias

Part of the solution is to expand the aperture of the way we see the world to include the perspectives of others. A first step toward that is acknowledging that we all carry implicit bias: attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or control.

Much research has been done in this area. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created Project Implicit to develop Hidden Bias Tests, called Implicit Association Tests, to measure unconscious bias.

Here’s how they speak about it:

“Social scientists believe children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers. Many studies have shown that as early as age 3, children pick up terms of racial prejudice without really understanding their significance.

Soon, they begin to form attachments to their own group and develop negative attitudes about other racial or ethnic groups, or the “out-group”. Early in life, most children acquire a full set of biases that can be observed in verbal slurs, ethnic jokes and acts of discrimination.

Once learned, stereotypes and prejudices resist change, even when evidence fails to support them or points to the contrary.

People will embrace anecdotes that reinforce their biases, but disregard experience that contradicts them. The statement ‘Some of my best friends are _____’ captures this tendency to allow some exceptions without changing our bias.”

It can be argued, then, that on an implicit level we are all racist, all prejudiced. But implicit bias is malleable: it can be reduced or increased. Only by acknowledging it can we open our minds and hearts to shift the needle on our evolution.

Tell the stories

My job is to offer art that invites the participant to dig into his/her/their own implicit bias in order to overcome it. If the humanities may be described as the study of the way we understand our world and the humans who reside in it, then expanding our knowledge to include the stories of those whose narratives have been suppressed can open our consciousness to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. This is backed up by research: implicit bias can be reduced by exposure to counterstereotypes. Art jars us into recognizing our bias and the humanities place that bias in context.

I want to create projects that jar me/us and check me/us on an ongoing basis. That checking and jarring is uncomfortable. But discomfort is critical; if we are feeling “comfortable” then we are not growing, evolving, or changing with the times.

Radical Interconnectedness Festival artwork

Artwork for the Radical Interconnectedness Festival. Credit: Allie Mahoney of Red Bicycle Press

This is why I founded the Radical Interconnectedness Festival. The festival, which will take place April 26-27, 2019 in Turners Falls, will feature art that engages issues of race, age, gender, religion, class, and those aspects of cultural identity that have been suppressed. There will be a wide range of artistic expression including music, dance, theatrical, visual, immersive, installation and other forms. We have also engaged local scholars who are helping us place the art in context.

The plan is to dig back, find the stories that have been suppressed, and tell them. Scholars play an important role here in excavating the hidden narratives, while art invites the participant to hear them. Because art is not necessarily beholden to dominant institutions (military, economic, political) that invitation allows for an openness of heart in the experience. When the heart is open, implicit bias may be addressed without blame or judgement. There need not be any defensiveness. Just tell the stories. When a multitude of arts and humanities offerings echo these new narratives we may begin to see change and a tipping point may be reached. We have a long way to go.

The Radical Interconnectedness Festival will take place on April 26 and 27, 2019 in Turners Falls. Here is their request for proposals; email Linda McInerney for more information at lmciner@gmail.com.

We seek proposals from artists to address the concerns of marginalized communities. We invite stories that engage issues of race, age, gender, religion, economic class, and those aspects of cultural identity that have been suppressed. We seek a wide range of artistic expression including music, dance, theatrical, visual, immersive, installation and other forms.

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One Response to We Are All Racist: Using Storytelling to Overcome Implicit Bias

  1. Michael Kalagher September 1, 2018 at 3:30 PM #

    Looking forward to attending.

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