Nancy Vaughan column: It’s time to talk about race, ethnicity and bias

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By Nancy Vaughan | For The Herald Bulletin Mar 24, 2019 
Where do African Americans live in Madison County? Hispanics? Do your neighbors look like you? Are you concerned about being stopped and questioned by law enforcement as you go about your daily business? Are there neighborhoods where you would hesitate to walk?
Do your answers point to divisions in our community based on race and ethnicity?
A cultural bias toward white European heritage is a fact of American life that all of us need to understand in order to create the country that we aspire to be.
Two years ago, United Way Worldwide announced network goals around education, income, health and a new category: community cohesiveness. The challenge to “fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community” is greater than simply not barring service to categories of people. The challenge is to understand how attitudes, institutions and systems create unconscious barriers and unequal opportunity, and then actively work to remove or mitigate those barriers.
To that end, a group of volunteer leaders is undertaking a new round of community conversations focused on equity and inclusion. We hope to have open, honest, and perhaps uncomfortable conversations about how we see the “other” — people not like ourselves — in order to remove barriers and create opportunity for everyone.
Currently, the committee is doing a deeper dive into the concept of implicit bias, i.e. unconscious beliefs or evaluations. Part of the study links to a Harvard online tool, the Implicit Attitude Test. This tool has proven over a couple of decades to be a scientific measure of bias.
I took a few of the tests and found that I do, indeed, have a moderate automatic preference toward light-skinned people over dark-skinned people and toward other people over Arab Muslims. This doesn’t mean that I intentionally discriminate or dislike these groups of people. In fact, much of our automatic bias is developed in childhood and is based on our stored associations from media and other exposures.
There are other tests around gender, weight, mental health, etc. The goal of this and a related curriculum at The Ohio State University/Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is to help us uncover implicit bias and use that awareness to retrain our brains and actively overcome negative impacts of implicit bias.
Study after study shows that implicit bias creates inequality and barriers to opportunity. One study cited: the same resume was sent to potential employers with one word change. The first name of the applicant was “Jennifer” on one version and “John” on another. Jennifer received lower recommendations and lower salary offers than John.
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, we learn associations through the images, messages and experiences we have beginning at birth. We must look at our behaviors and reactions with an open mind and accept reality. Our best efforts to avoid explicit and institutional bias will be undermined as long as we fail to recognize the bias that exists outside of our awareness.
Then, perhaps we can learn how to find our common humanity and live united together.