Thursday, August 22, 2013

Biased Babies

Our first meeting at school was set— a workshop on diversity led by an outside facilitator. Truth be told, I was less than excited. Not that I don’t care about diversity. More like I care so much about it that I can’t stomach trainings poorly done. And I’ve been to a lot of them.

Generally, one of two things happens. One is that unrealistic expectations are put out about engineering human behavior without considering the ground nature of our being. As if Cain and Abel only need read “Siblings Without Rivalry” to clear up their issues or Jacob’s brothers take the “No-Bully” training and avoid all that suffering in Egypt. Adam and Eve sit down to discuss their socially constructed gender issues, Jehovah takes an Anger Management Course and withdraws his order to smite the Canaanites. We have the good intention of ending war, racism, sexism and the like and want our children to grow up to be caring, compassionate human beings. Right now, by the way, at 7 years old. If you’re fighting with your brother or gossiping maliciously with your girlfriends or ignoring your feelings while you draw pictures of bombs exploding or remarking that your classmate’s skin color is different, we have failed.

The second outcome of some of these trainings is to open up the whole sticky ball of centuries of “isms.” Out come the personal stories of being victimized, each event recalled replayed in the nervous system as if for the first time. At the end of the meeting, there is anger and tears and blame and shame and “oh, well, sorry we don’t have more time to process this” and off the facilitator goes. It is rare that any greater understanding, compassion or healing takes place. In the work with the children, we then encourage affinity groups and claiming your identity. At 7 years old.

But this one training was different. It showed some research about how babies already at 2 months old prefer physically attractive people over those less so and are soon after reading the details of gender and race. And so comes an affirmation of what I’ve long suspected. Bias, or a preference for some features over others, particularly those that look more like us, is hardwired for survival (friend or enemy), is part of our pattern-perceiving mind, is in fact essential to our existence in all sorts of ways. Bias is natural and beyond judgment. And universal. We all have it. No exemptions.

But wait! There is a punch line. Bias may be natural, but what we do with that bias, how we act and react, how we use it to open and widen ourselves or close and narrow ourselves, is entirely human. Bias alone is not discrimination and social injustice. It can lead to them, but it can just as easily lead to greater curiosity about the other, wider understanding of ourselves and people, commitment to never use it as an excuse to perpetuate privilege, but as an invitation to “love your neighbor” through a celebration, investigation and even participation in the differences.

We can never wholly know the experience of the other, no matter how good our intentions are. And rather than freaking out when we inadvertently offend someone because of our limited perspective and natural bias, rather than tie ourselves up in the knots of political correctness so we’re afraid to speak or blow the whole thing off, each incident simply becomes the starting point of conversation, without the racist/sexist/ etc. labels thrown out. No blame. No shame.

Of course, there still is a place for some degree of blame and shame when we encounter people stuck in the old thinking of unabashed prejudice who are unapologetic about their behavior. That kind of purposeful aggression and intent to hurt needs a different kind of diversity training and I say Amen (or Amin, Gassho, Namaste, etc.) to that! But the folks I know are more vulnerable to what the facilitator called “micro-agressions,” those small, unconscious asuumptions that come up that have big effects on certain people. No harm intended, but hurt received and thus begins the conversation to clarify and widen understanding.

And that’s the whole deal. Knowing we all carry biases, our job is to simply become more conscious of their effect, more aware of our inherited assumptions, more sensitive without being overly nervous about offense. That felt do-able. That feels do-able. That feels real. And in fact, it is precisely what we have been trying to do in all the years I’ve been at the school, with both each other and the children. And to some extent, it has worked. Always more to do, but the kids mostly end up being friends with all sorts of people, learn something both philosophically and personally about opening to the other, know something of the history of exploitation and sanctioned ignorance. It’s a start.

Meanwhile, I now know I don’t have to take it too personally when the two month-old baby cries when he/she sees me. I'm a nice enough guy, but George Clooney I’m not.


  1. Yes!
    A university professor once said something I've never forgotten: the people who think they are not prejudiced are doing the most harm.
    Another wise, memorable statement is that if you know you have an urge to hurt someone you are far less apt to do it.
    A brutally sober honest look at oneself can be the bravest act of peace.


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