Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Could you be racially biased without knowing it?

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 1:48 PM EST, Wed December 3, 2014
Washington University students march through a student lounge on the St. Louis campus as part of a nationwide walkout on Monday, December 1. Activists called for students to walk out of school and employees to walk off the job nationwide to protest police violence. A grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the August shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown has prompted demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/24/justice/gallery/ferguson-reaction/index.html'>See photos of the unrest in Ferguson.</a> Washington University students march through a student lounge on the St. Louis campus as part of a nationwide walkout on Monday, December 1. Activists called for students to walk out of school and employees to walk off the job nationwide to protest police violence. A grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the August shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown has prompted demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country. See photos of the unrest in Ferguson.
HIDE CAPTION
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
Ferguson protests across U.S.
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: Studies have shown that people's perceptions are shaped by race
  • Kohn: Most of us have implicit racial bias, whether we like it or not
  • She says we're nowhere near a colorblind society, but there's a way to get there
  • Kohn: We need to recognize our own bias and consciously try to move beyond it

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In a social science study conducted years ago, researchers had subjects watch a videotape showing an "ambiguous shove" between two people. When the person doing the pushing was white, subjects made "situational attributions" for the shover's behavior. In other words, they made excuses for the shover's behavior. But when the person doing the pushing was black, the subjects blamed the shover's personality. Most notably, the subjects rated the exact same shove more violent when it was done by a black person.

In the wake of the grand jury's failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, it's worth evaluating how much our perceptions are affected by race.

The shove study suggests that even if you personally witnessed, for instance, a white cop in Ferguson yelling at a black teenage boy to get out of the street -- you would see the situation very differently depending on whether you're white or black.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

In an exit poll conducted in the communities around Ferguson on November 4th, 63% of black respondents hold unfavorable attitudes about the police compared to just 14% of whites. Chances are that if you're white and you've never been stopped or harassed by police, it can be hard to understand why black people are so upset.

At the heart of the protests that Michael Brown's death helped to inspire is a call to pay attention to how our perceptions are shaped by race whether we know it or not. In a nutshell, that's the key to undoing implicit racial bias in America.

Nancy Grace: Inciting riot is 'unprovable'
Former officers spar over race
Cops criticize Rams for Ferguson protests

In a CNN article, writer John Blake cites a sociologist who talks about "racism without racists." In other words, most Americans are not displaying overt racist behaviors; rather, we tend to display behaviors subtly influenced by our own individual racial bias.

Some of us like to think we're a colorblind society. Research on implicit bias refutes that notion. It's not that we're walking around consciously trying to bury impulses to join the KKK, it's that unconsciously we internalize stereotypes and act on them without even realizing it.

The irony is that while we're nowhere near a colorblind society, colorblindness may be the perfect analogy for our racial disconnect. For example, if you think the color green is "red," and your friend thinks the color blue is "red," then no matter how much you try to describe the same ugly Christmas sweater, you're going to talk past each other. The only way you'll ever be able to talk together about a sweater or movie is by completely understanding and accepting that each of your experiences are different and no less valid.

If you're white and live in New York City like me, your experience with the police is probably on the whole pleasant. They help you with directions and promptly come to your neighborhood to resolve a crisis when you call.

But if you're a young black man, your experience with the police is likely very different. You would be routinely stopped and frisked by the cops at random, usually for no good reason. After all, young black men are just 1.9% of New York City's population but make up 25.6% of NYPD stops.

As a white woman I'm not constantly stopped and harassed by police. But that doesn't mean I can't completely believe and validate the experiences of my black male friends who tell me they have been stopped and harassed more times than they can count.

In another study on implicit bias, researchers created computer-generated faces that were exactly the same except for skin color. Half of the faces were white and the other half were black. All the subjects rated the black faces in showing greater hostility. The same exact faces, except for skin color, were rated on average to show more aggressive expressions.

Knowing this shouldn't make us white people feel guilty. In fact, people of color also ranked the black faces as more hostile. It just shows that implicit bias is inside all of us. What studies like this should make us do is figure out how we can move beyond our implicit bias.

When the Ferguson protesters say, "Black Lives Matter," what they mean is that our society should recognize the basic dignity and humanity of black people. Appreciating the experiences of black people, even if they're different from your own, is a good place to start.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:51 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says the AirAsia flight had similarities to Air France 447, which also encountered bad weather
updated 8:29 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Poverty isn't the only reason why so many parents are paying to have their child smuggled into the United States, says Carole Geithner
updated 11:49 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Michael Rubin says it's a farce that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted tweets criticizing U.S. police
updated 1:40 PM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Ron Friedman says your smartphone may be making you behave stupidly; resolve to resist distractions in 2015
updated 8:32 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT