The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism

Update: We published this nearly two years ago, amid protests incited by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. People across the country are reeling once again after two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were fatally shot by police in separate incidents over the course of two days. Today, Vernā Myers' advice on how everyone can address prejudice — both cultural and individual — seems even more urgent.

This story was originally published on December 8, 2014.
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If anything, the last three weeks have illustrated how powerful a nation can be when exercising its right to protest. Demonstrations across the United States have kept Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the news, and as we head into another week of organized dissent, the outrage remains loud and clear. But, have we conveniently skipped a step? Thousands accuse everyone from law enforcers to governmental bodies of racism and inaction, but should we first point the finger at ourselves?

Vernā Myers
tackled the issue of "unconscious bias" at a TEDx event on November 15 — just weeks before the grand jury elected not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Her compelling speech was entirely prescient to the country's current state of unrest. Outcry and protest, she affirmed, are vital to this fight. But, if racism is a societal ill, then we need to treat the infection in all of us.

"What are we going to do about the Ferguson that's in us?" asked Myers. "That part of us that still crosses the street, locks the doors, clutches the purses when see young black men." Obviously not everyone is violent or overly prejudiced, but Myers argued that all of us carry unconscious bias.

"We've got to get out of denial," Myers urged the crowd, some of whom appeared visibly uncomfortable when she delivered her call to action. As a lawyer, activist, and diversity advisor, Myers addresses unconscious bias with individuals and corporations every day. There are three clear steps, she said, to rooting out these biases in yourself — and then correcting it. But, first and foremost is admitting out loud that you have them.

According to Myers, the second step involves moving toward your discomfort. For example, recognize that by default, your circle of friends may not include many black men. If that's the case, make the deliberate decision to interact with them, thereby resetting your automatic assumptions on a neurological level.

You're not going to get comfortable until you get uncomfortable.

Verna Myers

Finally, it is crucial to talk about these biases with our loved ones. Over the holidays, for instance, Myers said to "listen to the conversations around the table." If you hear something questionable, speak up. It's not about picking a fight with your bigoted grandma; it's about letting her and the rest of your family know that you won't ignore or tolerate bigotry. And, as awkward as it may be, Myers explained that it's also about setting an example. "Because you know who else is at the table? The children are at the table.

Referencing the Implicit Association Test, which measure unconscious bias, Myers pointed out that "70% of white people prefer white. 50% of black people prefer white." It is, indeed, an endemic issue and to argue that we have no personal part in it is the kind of willful ignorance that enables more brutality

"We wonder why these biases don't die and why the move from generation to generation," Myers said. "Because we're not saying anything. We've got to be willing to say, 'Grandma, we don't call people that anymore.'"

None of these steps are easy, of course. "You're not going to get comfortable until you get uncomfortable," Myers insisted. Her speech demonstrated that admitting the uncomfortable truth is the only way to truly resolve this ancient problem and trying to ignore our biases has clearly failed. We need to stop trying to eradicate racism and instead shine a light on it.

"Stop trying to be 'good people,'" Myers said. "We need real people." Getting real about racism is the only way to eradicate it within ourselves. And, if enough individuals take these steps, then eventually we will become a population of people who will not tolerate or enable deaths of people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

"How much better would our lives be?" asked Myers. "How much better would our country be?"
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