White Bias, Black Lives: When Unconscious Bias Affects Your Community

Posted on March 18, 2018 by
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Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

No one thinks they are racist. None of us believes we have a bias against an entire group of humans for no other reason than the color of their skin or the nationality of their ancestors. No one thinks—I’m a bad person, I’m unfair, I’m hateful.

Instead, we believe we are behaving rationally. We think we understand a thing or two about human nature, about who is safe and who is unsafe. We say to ourselves, “I may not be able to say it out loud in this meeting, because of these politically correct types, but they are fooling themselves. I’m a good judge of strangers, of who is good and who is bad.” Everyone has a gut instinct. Everyone is driven to follow that instinct—right or wrong.

But of course, racism has affected everyone in America—me, you, and all our neighbors. It’s in our gut instincts. We don’t have to look far into the nation’s history, politics, media, or current affairs before we see racism all around us. No one thinks “I am racist” but every child of color in America must face racism—it’s everywhere. Even in our liberal intentional communities.

In my community, it’s been showing up when children play on our property. Do you see a neighborhood kid, a visitor, a boy you know playing basketball with his little brother? Or do you see a stranger, a trespasser, a young man threatening your family’s safety and peace of mind? How do you decide?

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is the idea that stereotypes common in American culture get under our skin, past our mental constructs, and have a way of informing our behavior without our conscious mind’s approval. Sometimes called implicit bias, implicit associations, or microaggressions, the concept has been proven scientifically in the psychological literature.1 If you’re willing to have some uncomfortably fascinating moments with yourself, take a few brief online assessments of your own bias at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

Maybe you’ve noticed unconscious bias in your own life when you accidentally associated a southern accent with stupidity, when you assumed the Latina you didn’t recognize at work was there to empty your trash, when a black man got on your bus and you pulled your purse closer, then wondered why you were afraid.

Maybe you’ve noticed unconscious bias in your intentional community. It may be there when someone on the membership committee asks: “Is this family really a good fit for us?” Or when there are more women than men in your neighborhood but somehow meetings are mostly filled with male voices. It may be functioning when some visitors are asked questions, and others are left alone.

Is It Really Happening Here?

Sunward Cohousing, just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan has been struggling with unconscious bias for a long time. Founded in 1998, we built our beautiful community of 40 homes from the ground up on an old gravel pit, just around the corner from a low-income, subsidized apartment complex. Later, two other cohousing communities formed next door. About 500 people live within a mile of each other in these four separate communities.

Many, though not all, of the cohousing residents are white, wealthy, and older. Many, though not all, of the apartment complex neighbors are African American, working class, and younger. Often, though not always, you can make a good guess about where a neighbor lives from a quick glance.

Decisions based on unconscious bias happen in split seconds. In group or out group? Friend or stranger? Safe or unsafe? And because adults in our extended neighborhood tend to stay near their own homes, it’s the children who cross lines and show up as visitors or trespassers.

Take a look at that kid at the basketball hoop. Do you recognize him? Does he belong here? Is he a problem? Should you notify someone? Should you ignore him? Do you have time to go chat with him? Are you happy to see him? Do you feel worried for him? Are you afraid of him?

Are you willing to add “why?” to the end of every one of those questions?

Over the past two years my community has had some great interactions with neighborhood kids who visit our playground, our woods, our pond, and our common house. Our kids are friends and classmates and campmates with kids from the other three communities. Some of us from Sunward canvassed the low-income neighborhood before last year’s presidential election and talked to teens there about registering to vote. Some charming and hard-working neighborhood kids showed up for our work day and worked long and hard beside us in the gardens.

And we’ve also had some terrible experiences with each other. One kid was accused of stealing something after being seen inside our common house. One damaged a garden and was verbally threatened with violence by a member. Some kids playing basketball refused to leave after they were asked nicely, and it devolved into curses and shouting on both sides.

The terrible experiences are the ones that get talked about in community meetings. We’ve tried many approaches. We started keeping the common house locked. We hung a “members and their guests only” sign at the basketball hoop. We encouraged visiting kids to stay and play but only if a Sunward adult was present. We asked kids to leave. We threatened to call 911 if they didn’t.

And because we’re home to about 100 people with different beliefs and experiences and free will, we’ve never responded consistently or agreed on the “right” way to behave. Some of us have invited kids inside for a snack. Some of us have physically dragged them off the property. Some of us have stopped reading emails about the issue or coming to meetings where it is discussed. The police have been called to deal with children. More than once.

It is painful but essential to note that children who are dark-skinned are treated differently than children who are white-skinned. I am unaware of a single instance of the police being called on white kids who trespass. Including the white girls who lit a fire in our woods, got drunk, threw up, and slept out there overnight. Or the white boys who rode their mopeds up and down our delicate trails.

When we try to talk about the issue in community meetings, it often feels as if we’re speaking different languages. When someone feels afraid, it’s difficult to communicate to that person that her fear might be more about unconscious bias than it is about actual risk. We hear: “I’m just sensitive to the sound of loud voices.” We hear: “It’s just that I was hurt once and I don’t want to talk about it.” We hear: “I prefer not to have to see strangers and those kids look like they don’t belong here.”

Mostly we hear: “This isn’t about race, it’s about something else.”

But it is about race. We are mostly Americans here in my neighborhood. We are mostly white Americans. And we are unconsciously biased against people of color in general and black boys in particular.

The Process

Unconscious bias can be tricky to address. It’s unconscious. Have you ever tried to change something about yourself you’re barely aware of? Have you ever tried to get someone else to change a behavior she doesn’t even know she’s participating in? Have you ever been told something about yourself you were loath to believe?

We formed a small group to help the community walk through a Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making2 process (CODM, for short) designed to answer the following question: What should we do when random, uninvited kids show up on our property?

CODM invites participants to generate a list of concerns which should be addressed in any eventual proposal; ours fell into five main categories:

Safety of People We affirm the right of adults and children, members and residents of neighboring communities, to feel safe and to be safe.
Safety of Property We may face legal and financial liability if a child is injured here; we wish to prevent harm to our buildings and property.
Relationships We wish to build, nurture, and sustain relationships with our neighbors. This includes helping our kids befriend neighbor kids, and getting to know the parents of visiting kids.
Fairness We are concerned with fairness, and desire a consistent response across incidents whether the kids visiting/trespassing are from the other cohousing communities or from the apartment neighborhood.
Effectiveness The chosen approach should be actionable, sustainable, flexible, and evaluated for effectiveness.

 

Next in the CODM process, we’re invited to choose a general approach. Over several meetings, two different ways of responding to the issue emerged: protective and welcoming. We named these intentionally. The CODM team included proponents of both approaches, as well as a facilitator experienced with remaining neutral. Clearly, we couldn’t label one approach safety any more than we could label the other anti-racist. Instead we identified positive language for both broad strategies.

Next, across multiple meetings, we hung large sheets of newsprint and brainstormed about each of the basic, shared concerns listed above. How could we address people’s safety with a welcoming approach? How could we address it with a protective approach? Here are some samples from the brainstorming sessions:

CONCERN

Safety of People

APPROACH

Welcoming

APPROACH

Protective

Physical violence between residents and visitors

Unpleasant verbal interactions

Harm to kids by unnecessary use of law enforcement

Using law enforcement when needed

De-escalate conflicts, use a respectful tone

Trained team of responders who volunteer to interact with kids

Written definition of when law enforcement is necessary, save it for emergencies, not damage to property, not trespassing

Post-incident debriefs led by mediation committee

Install/improve common house locks

Resident responders who are trained by the police

Ask the police for proactive help

Improve signage stating our trespassing policies

Sign-in sheets for all guests

 

Ultimately, the community expressed a clear preference for the welcoming approach. At this point, CODM guided us to return to the minority preference—the protective approach—to select aspects which should be included in the draft proposal.

The Proposal

You may have noticed that the concept of a team of trained responders appears under both approaches above. The idea of a team of willing volunteers who feel comfortable interacting with neighbor kids and could be on call for incidents arose again and again as Sunward discussed these challenges. This text is from the current draft proposal:

All residents are encouraged to contact the response team (trained Sunward adults) if they are uncomfortable about uninvited children on the property. Members of the response team converse with kids and youth and, in most cases, ask them to leave. They treat everyone fairly and consistently. Team members are trained to use a relationship-centered approach, are sensitive to unconscious bias, and committed to communication that is fair, safe, and effectively sets boundaries. Calling 911 is an option of last resort used only in emergencies. Trespassing in and of itself is not considered an emergency.

Addressing Unconscious Bias

The proposal on the table attempts to address the challenges of unconscious racial, gender, and socioeconomic status bias in multiple ways.

Separate Crime Prevention from Kid Visits. It has been difficult to decouple the concept of crime prevention from interactions with neighborhood children. The team affirmed repeatedly that this proposal does not address security cameras, or neighborhood watch, or trespassing by adults, or recent petty property crimes committed or suspected in the neighborhood. This process is only to identify what we should do (and not do) when random, uninvited kids show up.

Provide Multiple Roles. By volunteering to be available, response team members could benefit those who feel unsafe or uncomfortable interacting directly with the kids. Sunward could develop a process by which those who have lost their temper or threatened children are excluded from the team and relieved from feeling responsible for enforcement. Responders can be trained to look for unconscious bias and discuss it during incident debriefs.

Limit Calls to Law Enforcement in Non-Emergencies. Decision points in this area have been particularly fraught. Unconscious bias for or against the police runs deep. For many white people, it’s shocking news to realize that many people of color and poor people feel the most unsafe when police are present. The current proposal aims to protect black kids from unnecessary contact with the police by providing a written definition of their role—while of course leaving every member free to make their own choices about calling 911.

Address Age Bias. “People of all races see black children as less innocent, more adultlike and more responsible for their actions than their white peers.”3 White people also tend to guess black children as older than they are. By suggesting that the policy applies to older teens and young adults, Sunward is attempting to counteract this potentially dangerous misperception and limit calls to 911.

Fairness. The draft proposal emphasizes consistency, fairness, and application to kids from all nearby neighborhoods, including the other cohousing kids. If black children are not allowed to trespass on community property, then white children aren’t allowed to either.

Know the Impact of Language. Most people are unlikely to warm to being labeled as racist. Referencing unconscious bias instead can welcome white people to these discussions. At the same time, know the phrase can sound to some like an ineffective synonym for racism. According to African American comedian and activist W. Kamau Bell, microaggression and unconscious bias are just “fancy ways for describing racism that isn’t necessarily fatal. Racism that makes our so-called white friends ask ‘How do you know it was racism?’…the kind of racism that drives you crazy. Death by a thousand racist cuts.”4

Conclusion

Probably no one is surprised that a midwestern cohousing community of mostly white baby boomers has not solved American racism in 2018. Despite the expressed desire of many to feel more comfortable—for example by excluding non-member kids—I think it’s fair to say that no one feels better yet. In fact, those of us who are committed to unlearning our unconscious bias would suggest that feeling uncomfortable is one marker of progress!

We’re not done. But the Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making process has shown us a way forward that hasn’t required 100 percent agreement or even a shared definition of the problem. We hosted multiple uncomfortable conversations about race, class, gender, and age. We held listening circles which took our neighbors’ fears and experiences seriously. We will continue to ask if our behavior is consistent with our values, and if our impact on neighborhood children matches our intentions. All of which has demonstrated a key benefit of living in community—working through hard issues, holding each other accountable, and taking shared action for the highest good.

Katy Mattingly is a member of the Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making Kids team at Sunward Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This article was read and edited for accuracy and clarity by the entire team, but not co-written, and reflects Katy’s own opinions and experiences of the community process. Notably, zero child visitors were consulted in the writing of this article.

Excerpted from the Spring 2018 edition of Communities, “Class, Race, and Privilege”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

1 For more information check out Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of good people. (2013.) Banaji, M.R. and Greenwald, A.G. Or Everyday Bias: Identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives. (2014). Ross, H.J.





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