speaking the unspeakable

It was the hidden brain I was writing about. The way our minds work, using unconscious biases to make it through our day-to-day lives. We have gut feelings we rely on that don’t express themselves with language or logic.

Here’s an article (Psych-Out Sexism: The innocent, unconscious bias that discourages girls from math and science) written by the author of The Hidden Brain giving a practical example of our our cognitive functions affect us in significant ways.

Why was it I chose such racist and specific examples to start my column? I did it to attract attention, of course. I also did it to demonstrate how ugly those fleeting thoughts—typically manifesting more as feelings than discernable thoughts—can be. And, finally, I did it because I wanted to address the case where a child was killed because (in my opinion, regardless of what the courts determined) the shooter was scared of a Black guy. I wanted to show that it wasn’t only the overtly dangerous acts that block us from eradicating racism.

As the days pass, and I mourn the loss brought on by my words, I have considered again and again what I said. My most recent conclusion is that it was easier for me to use racist statements as an example of those unconscious thoughts that influence our behavior than it would have been to use other kinds of examples. Setting aside my interest in addressing the Martin/Zimmerman case, if the piece had been about the sexualization of children, there are certainly horrific nearly-thought thoughts I could share. That, however, would put me at risk of being misunderstood on a level that could threaten my role as a parent.

Racist or pedophile-like thoughts are the easiest examples for me to use because they are the thoughts I have the most experience dismissing as wrong. They are no longer the things that freak me out with a nervous-nellie oh-god-I’m-awful-for-some-reason-I-don’t-know-why feeling. They are stupid, ignorant, bizarre thoughts that rarely ever come to words. When they do, I’m startled. I reject them and move on.

Let’s say I was writing about the hidden brain—how our unconscious biases affect our social interactions—related to transgendered people, or people with physical disabilities, or people in hospice care facilities, or generationally poor white people in West Virginia. In all of those cases, if I were to dig into my mind and come up with words to describe those gut feeling reactions they would be such unfamiliar and newly awful thoughts, I would have a great deal of difficulty expressing them. It would be especially difficult because I have little practical daily living experience with transgendered, differently abled, dying, or rural poor people. I haven’t become mindfully aware of those ugly feeling-thoughts, yet.

That isn’t to say the racist phrases were simple to write, or that I’d ever like to write them again. But, again, I’ve been learning about our cognitive functions (“supporting the Republican platform means you support rapists,” is one of my blog posts about these issues) for a few years. Facing my gross and, frankly, boring white-guilt thoughts made it much easier to free myself from their bondage. And, the same holds true for the unconscious thoughts about the sexualization of children. I’ve got a 10 year old daughter, so I’ve been un-thinking the most shocking quick-thoughts (freaky disturbing feelings) for a long time. Retraining my mind was most successful once I realized what was going on.

As I’ve said a couple times now, I stand by my column. It is not about my own obsession with my own experience. That would be a detraction from… police harassment and brutality/criminal employment practices/redlining based on perceived racial identity/systemic racism in the criminal justice system, or, of course, the list goes on.

We don’t all have those particular disgusting thoughts I shared at the opening of my column. We do, however, all have thoughts that inform our daily lives that would make us quite uncomfortable if we were to examine them closely. I’m committed to championing the idea that we should examine our unconscious biases closely in order to free ourselves from them.

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2 Comments

Filed under activism, mindful living, politics, racism

2 responses to “speaking the unspeakable

  1. You make a great point. Sometimes it takes a new situation for us to even realize what our biases are…and how disturbing they may be. You mentioned hospice care, which is my field. Many people are uncomfortable around the dying, and throwing yourself into a hospital ward for the terminally ill for deeper understanding is not the way to “get it”. Like you said, simply being aware of your own thinking is a sort of awakening that can make us better human beings all on its own.

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    • Thank you. It’s a risky proposition, sharing the ugliness in public. It’s my hope that more people like me can realize fighting racism is *not* about me facing my own racism/ignorance, if that makes sense? But, I do appreciate and agree with your response. I’m grateful you took the time to write it. :-)

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