Where Do We Go From Here? White Privilege, Implicit Bias & Historical Perspectives
How many "once in a life-time" historical events have we lived through this last year? How much collective pain and grief have we amassed? To say it was a grueling year, would be a gross understatement.
It was a completely eye-opening and oftentimes illusion-shattering year. The world came to a stop and many of us were forced to see the world around us, and our role in it, from a new perspective. This new perspective brought with it many lessons often aided by online community discourse.
As a 30 something, white, cisgender, woman, I learned that I’ve benefited from a lot of white privilege. Despite being a woman, I can still drive my car, get pulled over and not fear the officer taking my life. I can go out for a run in an affluent, white neighborhood, without anyone fearing I am a threat. I can go shopping alone and can rest assured that I will not be followed or harassed. I can most likely express the struggles of my mental health condition in public without being killed in the process.
I grew up in heavily white neighborhoods where I had access to the opportunities and financial security that allowed me to obtain a bachelor's degree in history with no remaining student debt. My parents paid for my entire college education, and it wasn't cheap. It took me six years and two schools to graduate. Once I finally decided on a major in history and minor in cultural anthropology, all white, and mostly male, professors taught me the basics of what I thought was all the American history that I never learned in my k-12 years. I learned the context of the American Indian Holocaust, American slavery and the Civil War, the unbridled capitalism at the turn of the 20th century and the sequential fight for labor rights. I learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, American foreign occupation and sabotage during the Cold War, Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Gulf War...
It turns out we weren't really taught Black or Indigenous American history. To be honest, most of what I learned of Indigenous history is only because I specifically signed up for anthropology classes on the subject in college . Most of what we did learn growing up was from a white-washed lens, riddled with cultural stereotypes and generalizations. For instance, the narrative that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the patron saint of the Civil Rights Movement and Malcom X and the Black Panthers were too radical. Or that Rosa Parks was just an old Black woman who got fed up one day and didn’t move for a White man. Or that Thanksgiving was a friendly display of charity for all indigenous tribes by some white colonists. I remember learning about Thanksgiving in kindergarten, and the girls in the class had to stay inside the classroom to prepare the feast while the boys in the class got to play outside in the “Indian” hats we previously all crafted.
As of 2021 Americans still think they can opt their children out of Black History Month curriculum. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, by the way, is referred to as the founder of Black History Month. As Jermaine Fowler, host and creator of The Humanity Archive podcast, succinctly states, "Woodson was a scholar who wanted to see the contributions and history of black people put on equal terms with white people in history." The fact that folks can choose to opt their children out of this curriculum at all, which has been awarded to the shortest month of the year, is pretty telling that America still has a problem with race.
One could argue that the study of history in general, is in a state of crisis today. As a byproduct of the 2008 recession, History is one of the fastest declining college majors across the country, especially in the Midwest. Students, who have spent their formative academic lives in the aftermath of recession, have continued to choose more "profitable" majors. The only schools where this is countered is at elite schools like Yale, Brown, Princeton and Columbia. Eric Alterman refers to this paradox as “intellectual inequality"; speaking "to the fact that some people have the resources to try to understand our society while most do not." While the racial diversity of students and faculty is “above average” at these universities, they are still heavily White. Black and African American students and faculty make up less than 10% of the overall populations at each of these universities.*
Coupled with the ahistorical assertions of recent politicians, Trump’s 1776 Commission, and the mass online circulation of conspiracy theories, it's clear that it's more important than ever to uphold historical thinking, as we continue to be witnesses to history in the making.
It's no wonder that historians are taking to podcasts, Instagram, and even TikTok as alternative platforms to address history and make it more accessible. It's now time to take it upon ourselves to dig up and examine the stories of the past that we never learned and still need to face.
"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." -James Baldwin
For some people, it’s easy to place a barrier between the past and the present; to remove yourself from the connection the past has to today’s human experience and it’s social, economic, judicial, and political climates. This is however, not reality.
When you really think about it, we live in an adolescent country. The United States of America has only existed as a sovereign nation for 244 years. North American Chattel Slavery lasted 246 years. It has only been 156 years since this form of enslavement was deemed unconstitutional, and for 89 of those years segregation was legal. Segregation has only been illegal for 67 years. Of course we are still dealing with the effects!
Our understanding of the past is only as good as our understanding of the present and how it's all connected. It’s time to start unpacking the white-washed lens we have on history and insert a lens backed with accountability that may mirror systemic change. We have to stop putting that invisible barrier between us and the past, and for a lot of us, it begins by acknowledging our own privileges and biases.
Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D, is the former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and is founder of the National SEED Project. It's Peggy who popularized the term “white privilege” in her 1988 and 1989 papers on privilege, most notably White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. While studying the phenomenon of male privilege in her women's studies, Peggy began to ponder if there was a phenomenon of white privilege.
"As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage....I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."
"Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about white privilege must ask, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?” -Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D.
In this important essay, Peggy McIntosh admits that she put her self accountability to the test and came up with 50 examples of how she benefitted from white privilege, many of which prove more systemic foundations of our society and societal preference than something people “earn”. For instance, "I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me." or "I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin." In reading this piece, I found that I identified with 45 of her examples.
Peggy highlights that the oppressiveness of white privilege is often unconscious, and that she was often told by "women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive."
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.” -Peggy McIntosh, PhD.
Around the same time, Peggy McIntosh was writing about white privilege, Mahzarin R. Banaji was exploring implicit bias. One could refer to implicit bias as the science behind the unconscious oppression created by a dominant culture.
Mahzarin R. Banaji, is a Harvard University experimental social psychologist, and has been studying implicit social cognition, since the 1980s with her colleague Anthony Greenwald. Their work led to the creation of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in 1998. This assessment tool allowed Banaji and Greenwald to study and measure the disparities between conscious values and unconscious attitudes and behaviors. Together they wrote, “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People,” in 2013, and the concept has taken off ever since.
Mahzarin gives power presentations on implicit bias in which she demonstrates exactly how our "culture leaves its thumbprint" on our brain using the IAT assessment tool.
Mahzarin demonstrated this same assessment in Bari, Italy in 2018, underlining the universal existence of implicit bias.
We all have implicit bias. It's the way we've learned to make sense of our world from our social conditioning. Most of it stems from the conditioning of our early childhood; the values we were instilled with from parents, religion, teachers, neighbors, the books we read, and the movies and TV shows we watched. We can have race, gender, age, class, nationality bias, but also affinity bias, beauty bias, contrast bias, confirmation bias, and more.
Despite the nuances of implicit bias, its impact is undeniable.
In 2008 Jennifer Eberhardt, Phillip Ariba Goff, Melissa J. Williams, and Matthew Christian Jackson, wrote a vitally important article titled, "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences" which explored implicit bias in the context of criminal justice.
The authors argued that although historical representations explicitly depicting Black people as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, a mental association between Black Americans and apes still exists implicitly. Through laboratory studies, the authors were able to demonstrate specifically how this Black–ape association altered visual perception and attention, and increased endorsement of violence against Black suspects in study participants. The authors were also able to uncover how news articles written about Black individuals convicted of capital crimes, were more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about white convicts. Furthermore, those who were implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles, were more likely to be executed by the state than those who were not.
Not only did this article kickstart the relevancy of implicit bias within criminal justice and explore its historical representations, it also proved the language we use matters. We are not as far away from the past as we might think and the language we use still has tangible consequences. After all, it wasn't too long ago that Americans explicitly referred to Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, as an "ape in heels."
No one likes confronting their own privilege or bias. It often fills us with discomfort, shame, and frustration but as Layla F. Saad says, "not looking at something doesn't mean it doesn't exist... It is an expression of white privilege itself to choose not to look at it".
As historians and educators, we have the responsibility to acknowledge and dissect our own implicit biases in order to further our field, and instill better relationships with our peers, students, family, friends, and communities at large. It's time to starting get comfortable with the discomfort of personal and systemic accountability. It is the only way forward.
“Privilege not only blinds you to oppression, it blinds you to your own ignorance even when you notice the oppression”. - Mikki Kendall
For further reading & learning:
To test your own implicit biases: https://outsmartinghumanminds.org/
For more information on Jennifer Eberhardt and her work on race and criminal justice: Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
For further learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X: The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel E. Joseph. Also check out this recorded virtual event hosted by Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the author chatted in depth about the book.
For more history on Black History Month: The Humanity Archive, Podcast #20: The Black History Month Podcast