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Addressing Our Blind Spots

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Travis Reginal
September 12, 2017

Several major companies, consulting groups and universities have held events or sessions to discuss the hidden biases people have and how to have productive and respectful dialogue around sensitive issues. These instances have often been reactive, following events such as a racially-charged murder or blatant hatred displayed against minorities. Workers and students are confused about how these incidents are possible “in today’s age.” Sensing their members often feel stuck and unsure of how to address these issues, organizations have consulted the insights given in the popular book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. One of the key findings of the book is that we all have implicit associations which can lead us to display biases for or against certain groups of people.

The associations that arguably disturb people the most are that white people consistently associate black people with violence and Americans favor white people over black people. However, the social context in America makes racial biases an almost foregone conclusion. Persistent segregation by race and class allows for individuals to spend most of their lives without major interactions with someone of a different race or ethnicity. People favor the familiar, and it is difficult to establish familiarity with those you don’t live near or interact with regularly.

Blindspotphoto

Thus, some human interactions can be predicted. A television talk show host interviewed people who proclaimed to be gluten-free by asking them if they knew what gluten was. Before each interviewee’s answer was revealed, the show host paused the video and asked the audience to predict, simply by looking at the person, if the person knew what gluten was. Without fail, the audience assumed that the white interviewees knew what gluten was, while they assumedthe black interviewees did not.

In the popular TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about how people have made false assumptions about her based on her being Nigerian. Some people are surprised when she admits to making false assumptions of others as well. We all are victim to ignoring the nuance of others and creating a single story of them based on the media or limited knowledge. Blind spots are created when we form a single story of someone or a group of people. The issue with having a single story is that they are not complete and are only half of the truth.

I would like to add further clarity to the creation of race-related blind spots using two sociological terms coined by Yale professor Elijah Anderson: white space and the iconic ghetto. Historically, the ghetto served as a containment space for blacks. One could not take public transportation from the ghetto to the wealthier white neighborhoods since they would often be divided by bridges. Although social mobility has increased and we have the largest black middle class of all time, the stigma of the ghetto remains. The iconic ghetto has a way of sticking to a black person regardless if they were born in Beverly Hills or South Side Chicago. The iconic ghetto causes black people to be seen with a deficit of credibility by establishing the black body as the bottom of the totem pole. Black people are viewed negatively by most ethnicities in America, and sometimes by members of their own race, as people do not want to be associated with the iconic ghetto. Black people are amongst the first to be scrutinized by their colleagues or professors. Many successful black people will readily speak about how they had to work harder than their white peers to get to where they are. They were often overlooked for promotions or career opportunities because of their race or class background.

Black people view majority white neighborhoods, offices, schools or public places as “white space.” These spaces are volatile spaces for those associated with the iconic ghetto in that black people are treated with suspicion or seen as outsiders. Thus, black people have to fight for temporary status to operate in the white space as their credibility is limited. This is exemplified when black professionals are assumed to be “the help” at events instead of a speaker on a panel.

The iconic ghetto and the white space are conceptual categories, but they have very real implications. They describe the world as it is, although not everyone may be aware of the way these categories affect everyday social interactions. Thus, it is pivotal the populace is made aware of these two concepts that are important in fixing race relations in America. Working towards the elimination of these categories can help bring racial reconciliation.

What do you do after you’ve read books such as Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People? Do you feel guilty every day of your life because of the biases you harbor? Helpful recommendations on how to eliminate these hidden biases can be found on several websites such as PwC and the Society for Human Resource Management. We need authentic relationships to counterbalance the many years of half-truths. When we can create community despite our differences, that is something to be celebrated.


Author: Travis Reginal is a research assistant at the Urban Institute. He is a graduate of Yale University where he studied sociology and education studies. Travis has written and spoken on the matter of disadvantaged students attending elite institutions for a number of outlets such as the New York Times, NBC News, and American RadioWorks. He can be reached at [email protected].

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3 Responses to Addressing Our Blind Spots

  1. Michael Reply

    September 15, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    Good article. I would extend another notion outside of lack of familiarity breeding blind spots. If we go with the claim that Americans are caring and generous people we need to peel back a bit further and ask ourselves if that generic stated characteristic gives a pass to our other characteristic. The characteristic that says I’m okay with my neighbor so long as she or he doesn’t have more than I do, then all bets are off. Then we tell ourselves it’s about staying competitive when it would appear an excuse to not address the real issue which is not caring if everyone has the ability and freedom to live their best life. Or, the more insidious accepted notion there must be have nots in order to incentivize the haves. That we are okay with general inequality in this country must be admitted and dealt with.

  2. Amanda Reply

    September 13, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    “People favor the familiar, and it is difficult to establish familiarity with those you don’t live near or interact with regularly.” How do we get people to expand their sense of “the familiar” or form authentic relationships with people who are different from them?

  3. Darrell Moore Reply

    September 12, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    Useful article, but I’m not sure of why it was written. Oh, I think I know now. White people need to be made aware of the Blind Spots; I believe black people already are. This article is written for those who see, but don’t really see. In reference to Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man, black people are not really invisible, it’s that other people refuse to see them. By the way – Invisible Man was published over 60 years ago, before Emmitt Till, Rosa Parks, MLK, Civil Rights, Civil unrest, Black Militancy, and B.H. Obama. I guess one day, we’ll get it right.

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