The Detoxing Man is Conscious (of bias within himself)
I remember the exact moment when I became aware of race. I was probably 3 or 4 years old, standing in the checkout line with my mother at a discount grocery store. The clerk was a dark-skinned black woman. And as I watched her scan the items, I formulated a question in my head, one that was too embarrassing for me to ask. So, I started trying to crawl onto the bottom of the shopping cart. I didn’t want anyone to know I was thinking this question, least of all the woman helping us with our groceries.
As my mother tried to get me from under the cart and directed my older brother out to the car, she asked me what got me so embarrassed. I was likely blushing heavily at this point. I felt a little safer to ask in the deep anonymity of the outdoors. So, I shared, “What was wrong with the woman’s skin? Why did it look like that?”
I don’t remember all of my mother’s response, but she likely said something about being born with dark skin and that there are lots of different kinds of people, some of whom have very dark skin, and she probably added that we shouldn’t treat people differently because of their skin color. I’m sure that satisfied enough to help me to let go of the immediate embarrassment, but three plus decades later, I am still struck by how much I considered my own skin to be “normal” and the woman’s skin to be “wrong” or at least “so very different from my own.”
It is this unconscious bias toward my own existence as the dominant, the default, and yes, even the correct version that I continue to fight every day. While I may have stopped seeing my own skin tone as worthy of preferential treatment, I am constantly discovering that there is more work to do.
I had to discover, as I taught many students in my middle-school English classes, that unless I actively paid attention to it, boys voices would dominate because I listened to them longer or called on them more. I had to uncover, as I parented my own children, that unless I made a conscious effort to correct it, I would ask my sons to “stop crying” or “walk it off” when they got hurt. And I had to painstakingly realize, as I developed the most meaningful relationship of my life, unless I was intentional in my words, I would prize my own sense of logic over my wife’s feelings.
My bias is real and it is ever present. It is the preference for my own perception that I carry around with me. And only through great effort can I become conscious of when it impairs my judgement, my learning, and my actions. And yet, just as I knew that instinctively I should be embarrassed to consider someone else’s skin color “wrong” because it was “different,” it is just as embarrassing to be middle-aged man who still considers his way of life to be the right one and to go out into the world and live as if it were.