One night, a father and his son were driving home from an event. It was a stormy night, and as they rounded a corner, the car skidded off the road, hitting a tree. The father dies on impact, and his son experienced significant injuries and was transported to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, the paramedics rushed the patient into the operating room. The surgeon looked at the boy on the table and said, “I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.”
The surgeon could not operate on the boy because she is his mother. The above riddle is called “The Surgeon’s Dilemma,” and it is used to highlight our unconscious biases, those biases that we hold in our subconscious and that we do not, a lot of the time, even recognize that we have. In this case, the riddle points out our gender biases. More than half of the people who encounter “The Surgeon’s Dilemma” struggle with riddle. I admit that when I first heard it I struggled, and it pointed out my unconscious gender biases because I immediately, without realizing it, thought of the doctor as a man.
Unconscious biases become part of us through a myriad of factors from education, church, the media, our home, and more. We can usually pinpoint explicit bias pretty easily because it is, well, explicit. Explicit bias would include acts of violence, slurs, overt discrimination, and more. However, unconscious bias is harder for us to determine and reckon with because, well, it’s unconscious. When we do realize these biases, though, we can notice them and actively work to counter them in our thoughts and actions.
Michelle Alexander points out that “[d]ecades of cognitive research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individuals does not want to discriminate.” She points out the ways that unconscious racial bias affects reactions to individuals and events, specifically in policing. She cites Joshua Correll, Sean Hudson, Steffanie Guillermo, and Debbie Ma’s research which shows the unconscious biases that affect reactions to armed or unarmed white and Black individuals. Alexander writes, “Consistent with earlier studies, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed.” We’ve seen this in countless times, most recently with the shooting of Isiah Brown.
Following Ruby Bridges’ integration of William Frantz Elementary school New Orleans in 1960, Lillian Smith traveled to the city as a journalist and spoke to whites in New Orleans for Redbook. In “The Ordeal of Southern Women,” she interviewed various individuals, and she pointed out, throughout, the ways that unconscious bias becomes part of one’s psyche.One of the women Smith spoke with detailed her upbringing and how she blindly followed what she had been taught. She told Smith,
I had always been a segregationist. As children, little by little we learn there are barriers, little by little we learn where to go, where to sit, what to say. We hear jokes; we hear everybody saying they believe in segregation; we see people acting it out. We learn to do this, we learn to do that. And suddenly, we’re segregationist. It isn’t that we’ve studied its rationale or learned real arguments supporting it; we just are segregationists. And we never questioned it.
What she saw in the fall of 1960, though, caused the woman to question her upbringing and beliefs. When she saw the white women screaming, cursing, and demeaning the children integrating schools in New Orleans. Ultimately, she told herself, “If segregation or any belief can drive you to the point where you will threaten and bully little children and walk on the street screaming obscenities, that belief is no good.”
The white reaction to Bridges’ integration at William Frantz led the woman to question what she learned and what she believed. That is the first step; however, we do not know what happened after her awakening. The biases that she learned growing up remained with her, and she must constantly fight the biases within her mind. These may be conscious or unconscious, but they are there. It’s a constant battle within oneself to counter the biases that have seeped into our psyches and taken root within our brains. Smith points out that rooting out these biases is not an easy task, partly because of the familial and communal connections entangled with them.
At the end of the article, Smith writes about women like the one quoted above. She says, “To throw off such training requires courage and willingness to suffer–to suffer not only criticism and threats of others but the pangs, the deep pains, that come to anyone who tears herself from old bonds.” Once one recognizes the biases within, it completely upends their social connections because it brings the person face to face with the biases that have shaped them, biases that stem from personal and communal interactions. As one one told Smith, “I feel at times as if I am betraying the teachings of a beloved mother; it hurts to do this; one’s mind frees itself before one’s heart will follow. The old memories of childhood, so sweet and good, and so terrible too, are not easy to set to one side.”
The deeply entrenched biases that we carry around in our psyches influence our interactions with others everyday. They influence the way we perceive our fellow human beings, and they influence our responses to situations. No one is immune from these unconscious biases. They infect each and everyone of us, but we must recognize them and actively work to counter them. Until we do that, we will never overcome our prejudices, our xenophobia, or our fears. We will never move towards a more equitable society. We will remain stuck within a system of white supremacy, denying that these biases even exist, thus perpetuating inequality.
Countering these biases is not easy, especially when they have been so ingrained within our very core. Fighting them requires us not just to fight ourselves but it also calls upon us to fight those closest to us, those who influenced and shaped us. This, perhaps, is one of the hardest things, and it is what Smith notes not just in “The Ordeal of Southern Women” but throughout her writing. We must do this, and this confrontation of one’s own self and one’s own past demands action. We cannot sit by and merely recognize our own biases without working to counter the core of the biases. We must confront the influences that lead us to these biases, and this process is not easy. Yet, it must be done.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.