Could you be racially biased without knowing 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.

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

CNN  — 

If UVA has any sense of moral rightness and wishes to remain a great university, it should conduct a thorough investigation into these and similar allegations and mete out appropriate punishment for the perpetuators. Universities everywhere should take serious steps to address sexual assault on campuses rather than trying to cover them up.

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

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.

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.

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