Thoughts on My Battle to Overcome Implicit Bias
While I Strive to Be Anti-Racist I Acknowledge My Own Struggles
I think of myself as anti-racist. That doesn’t mean I don’t have biases that I need to overcome. I work at this consciously, but perhaps I should work at it even more conscientiously.
It is difficult for members of my faith who are my age and older to reconcile our connection to historical institutional, structural racism with our belief that God is not racist and that we shouldn’t be.
To this day, I remain a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the time of the Church’s founding, leaders welcomed members of African descent in full fellowship.
When the body of the Church left Illinois and moved to what is now Utah, Church leader Brigham Young was accompanied by a few African American “servants,” as I was taught in my youth. Recently, historians have determined they were enslaved people owned by the Prophet.
Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Church excluded Blacks from participating in Temple ordinances and receiving the priesthood.
That exclusion remained in place until after my 13th birthday. I was well aware of it. Like virtually all of my co-religionists, I accepted it.
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When the practice ended in 1978, I celebrated the change with every member of the Church I knew. I was oblivious to an organized effort to reverse the change to eliminate any racial test from Church practice.
“Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form,” reads the Church website.
Now, living in the South, I find my Church congregation among the most meaningfully racially integrated parts of the community. I am incredibly grateful for that.
Still, the Church so dominated Utah, where I lived, that its structural bias against Blacks at the time meant that few chose to live in the state. I recall seeing my first Black man in person at six or seven. The first Black classmate I remember was in the 6th grade.
So, as a child, I was trained to believe that for reasons no one could adequately explain, Blacks were unworthy of the priesthood I received at age 12. Furthermore, I had almost no African American friends. I don’t recall having a Black member of my congregation until long after the priesthood ban ended.
Add to that, film and television depictions in the 1960s and 70s often portrayed African Americans—and Africans—in a poor light.
Furthermore, in my first real job, I learned about Federally mandated red-lining that prevented banks from making mortgage loans in Black communities. While the practice had ended by the mid-80s when I took that job, Federal law had done the damage. The wealth created by homeownership in white neighborhoods like mine wasn’t universal. Slumlords exploited those who couldn’t obtain mortgages.
Subtler racism persisted into my adulthood. I saw the Crime Bill pass with the support of President Clinton, despite what I, even at the time, understood were racial complications—especially relating to crack v. powder cocaine punishments in the law.
So, a lot of context in my youth falsely suggested inherent differences and even inferiorities in Blacks. I’ll spend the rest of my life working to purge those ideas.
To be clear, I don’t recall being told by my parents or a teacher that Blacks were inferior. More often, they taught the opposite. Still, that did not eliminate the racist context of my experience.
While I never thought of myself as a racist and did not ever advocate for overt white supremacy, I now recognize some of the programming I received stuck.
Years ago, a member of my Rotary Club pointed me to Project Implicit’s implicit bias test. Now, the organization has about 20 different tests to help you identify your own biases. Taking just one will make the point. Most people, myself included, discover biases we’d rather not have and consciously reject.
Today, I took the race test. My score surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t. It showed a moderate bias favoring white people. That is so yucky. Getting that score feels like stepping in fresh dog dung in my best shoes. I want to throw away all of my biases.
During my campaign for Congress two years ago, I had an experience that still troubles me. I hired a firm to help me with fundraising. During my call time, the firm assigned a rotating team of staffers to coach me.
Calling one person to ask for money is incredibly difficult. During the campaign, I did it 30,000 times. No exaggeration. One of the staffers who helped me was an African American woman. She gave me some critical feedback, to which I responded poorly.
Later in the cycle, I sought but did not receive the endorsement of the Democratic Black Caucus, in which the same woman was a leader. That fact suggests she drew a conclusion about my feedback to her that day.
Toward the end of the campaign, during call time, her boss at the firm I’d hired—a white man—offered me some similar criticism. I responded the same way.
So, I believe my poor reaction to criticism has nothing to do with race and everything to do with insecurities that frustrate my ability to accept criticism well.
Here’s the thing. I’ll never know for sure. Was I quicker to anger because of her race or gender? Was I more vocal or explicit in my feedback? Did I raise my voice more with her than with him? My feedback wasn’t recorded, so I can’t compare.
I do know that I harbor implicit biases that I consciously reject. Those biases are hard to overcome entirely. Nothing excuses behaving badly. Nothing excuses racism.
Our move to Jacksonville last year was primarily driven by weather—it hasn’t snowed once since we arrived—but I recognized a bonus. The city is racially diverse, so I get an opportunity to associate with more African Americans.
I’m on a path toward a heartfelt goal. I invite you to join me. Check your implicit biases and, if necessary, begin a conscientious effort to overcome them.