The most important thing to know about racism is that it’s everywhere. Whether it’s politics, entertainment, tech, the media, or finance, the nature of systematic racism and subconscious bias mean that racist behavior and thinking is impossible to escape entirely. Decades of research have confirmed that we all have biases we’re not aware of, and that affects our decision-making.
But that doesn’t mean that people can’t train their brains to be less racist.
Earlier this week, San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi wrote a Washington Post op-ed about how he recognized his own racial biases and started working to overcome them. His staff now undergoes twice-yearly anti-bias training and frequently meets with their clients’ families to gain better perspective on their struggles. Adachi writes that by addressing implicit bias head-on, he and his staff were able to make real strides:
The bias training we now undergo twice-yearly explores the subtle assumptions we make based on race. It forced us to examine who we choose to associate with, and who we choose not to, and how our fears and misperceptions about people affect the way we interact with them and ultimately represent them in court. And it required us to confront our own racism.
Harvard University offers a number of online tests that measure bias, both subconscious and explicit. But those tests offer merely a diagnosis of the problem, not a cure.
So how can a person actually become less racist?
To find out, I looked at some of the relevant academic research, and called up Dr. Sondra Thiederman, a workplace diversity expert and the founder of Cross Cultural Communications. Dr. Thiederman, who holds a doctorate in cross cultural studies from UCLA, has been consulting with Fortune 500 companies and government agencies for the past 25 years, working with teams to better equip people to recognize their biases and, ultimately, work to minimize them.
Here are some of the tips she and others gave:
Recognize that racism is universal
Dr. Thiederman stressed that people should acknowledge they have racial biases, and know that they’re not a uniquely bad person for having them. If people don’t feel attacked for being racist, the theory goes, they’re going to be more willing to acknowledge and try to change their behavior.
“Our culture has fallen into this thing that if you have an unconscious bias that somehow makes you evil or stupid or somehow inadequate, and the reality is we’ve all got ‘em,” she said. “What matters isn’t that we have them or not, it’s what we do about them and whether we take responsibility for them.”
Just being aware that you have racial biases isn’t enough to start solving them, but it is a necessary first step. According to Monitor on Psychology, the journal of the American Psychological Association, “awareness of prejudiced responses leads to guilt, which leads to self-regulation to prevent future prejudice.”
Question your instincts
Thiederman likes to ask the people in her diversity trainings to do a “very simplistic” exercise that she swears by: ask yourself what the first though that pops into your brain is when you see someone of a certain race, or a homeless person, or someone dressed a certain way.
“It could be that it reflects a deep-rooted attitude, or it could be that you just saw a TV show,” she tells me.
So how do you know if it’s a bias or not? Dr. Thiederman answers that question with a question that people pose to themselves: “What happens when I find out that I’m wrong?”
She posits a hypothetical situation: you’re walking down a dark alley and a dark-skinned man approaches from the other direction. You hold your purse closer to your body or feel for your wallet, or otherwise tense up. He smiles as he passes and you notice he’s carrying a celebrated work of literature. What do you think then?
“If your response is, ‘Oh, wow, that was silly of me, I was wrong,’ then chances of that being a deep-rooted bias are less, because it means that you’re willing to let go if it’s not really ingrained in there,” she says. “But if you feel disoriented and ask ‘What’s wrong with him?’ or ‘He’s the exception to the rule,’ now we’re getting into bias territory.”
Thiederman encourages her subjects to examine the logic of their bias.
“No one is accusing you of being responsible for the ills of the nation,” starts another of her hypotheticals, “but I want you to ask ‘where did I learn this?'”
Dr. Thiederman says she asks herself this question all the time (she recently ran into a Trump supporter after some confusion over her “Make America Great Britain Again” hat, but came away with an different, more positive opinion of the woman after talking to her), and she says it routinely works during a session.
“People’s eyes light up. Those are the kind of moments we have to start having in this country, in all directions.”
Study the roots of racism
One of the ways to become less racist, according to Notre Dame anthropology professor Dr. Agustin Fuentes, is to talk openly about it. But to do that, we need to learn more about racism, and how it operates within society.
In 2013, Dr. Mike Likier, a cognitive behavioral psychologist who also holds diversity and anti-racism training sessions, spoke toThe Root about how, when we’ve realized that we have racist thoughts and biases, we are at a critical juncture in developing a racial identity:
most white people experience some kind of crisis when they become aware of racism and even their own role in it — and it’s uncomfortable. You can deal with this cognitive dissonance by pushing it back onto people of color (blaming, hating, demonizing, etc., and all that stuff with which we’re way too familiar), or you can do something different.
That “something different” is learning. Gaining the knowledge of both the history and functions of institutional and individual racism will give you a better understanding of groups you are not a part of, and will allow cross-cultural conversations to occur.
If you don’t know where to begin, try reading a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ Between the World and Me, or UMass-Boston philosophy professor Lawrence Blum’s I’m Not A Racist, But… , a book that is used a lot by educators because of its straightforward analysis of the language and concepts of race and racism. The Center for Social Inclusion maintains and frequently updates a reading list of papers and books about structural racism that you can view here.
Write it all down
It sounds strange, but writing down your reasoning can help show you if you’re being racist. In a National Center for State Courts research paper, it was recommended that decision-makers (judges and jurors alike) articulate their reasoning for making the decisions they did:
By prompting decision makers to document the reasoning behind a decision in some way before announcing it, judges and jurors may review their reasoning processes with a critical eye for implicit bias before publicly committing to a decision
This strategy doesn’t just apply to juries. In the workplace, for example, a hiring manager who writes down his or her rationale for hiring a certain candidate may be able to more fairly examine the choice for signs of bias.
Dealing with racism doesn’t happen overnight. And experts say it’s important to examine your own biases frequently and honestly, and keep trying to root out biased behavior, both in yourself and others. Partly, being aware of racism in the media and other high-profile venues can help.
“What public figures say has so much power to spread the message and leave an impression about how we can treat people and how disrespectful we can be,” Dr. Thiederman says. “For that reason, if you’re a broadcaster or a political figure or a movie star, what you say has to be scrutinized.”
When someone does say something racist around you, Dr. Thiederman says that pointing it out, explaining why it’s offensive, and asking people what they really meant to say can help get to the root of the issue much faster.
“This whole issue is less complex and less subtle and more controllable than we’ve made it.”
Get out of your monochrome bubble
A University of Virginia paper by Calvin K. Lai, Kelly M. Hoffman and Brian A. Nosek says that frequent and meaningful contact with people whose racial identity does not match your own — which they call “intergroup contact” — is key to overcoming racism and bias:
intergroup contact affects explicit and implicit prejudice differently. Intergroup contact’s effect on explicit prejudice is mediated through increased self-disclosure and reduced intergroup anxiety, suggesting that quality of contact is important for reducing explicit prejudice. In contrast, the quantity of intergroup contact has a direct effect on implicit prejudice, suggesting that mere exposure to out-group members is sufficient for reducing implicit prejudice.
The paper continues to say that merely the “presence of other people in the same room can even decrease implicit prejudice.”
Once you’ve recognized your biases, learned more about racism, and talked to people of different races, you need to start replacing biases and stereotypes with what you know to be true about people, according to Patricia Devine, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Dr. Devine’s research included putting participants through an exercise consisting of “empathizing with and imagining people as the opposite of their stereotypes,” which led to a sustained drop in implicit bias.
In your own life, this might mean striking up a conversation with a co-worker or neighbor of a different race you’ve never talked with before, attending community meetings, going to a museum or street fair, volunteering, traveling, or even moving to a more diverse area—what better way to reverse your thinking than by literally getting out of your comfort zone?
Dr. Thiederman agrees that finding common ground with members of other racial groups is important.
“The more we identify what we have in common with someone against whom we have a bias against, the less apt we are to be biased against them.”