Like so many of us, I’ve been taking part in the discussions on race and racism that are center stage again—from all of the police shootings to the massacre in Charleston. Make no mistake about it—racism is not a thing of the past. It is a living, breathing entity that’s very much alive and well in our country.
I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology which means I’m not only trained to conduct therapy, but I’m also trained as a scientist and a researcher. From early on in graduate school, we were taught to avoid the confirmation bias in our research. The confirmation bias is an error in thinking that causes you to only look at, examine, and interpret research that supports your own ideas. Simply put: you only look for evidence that confirms what you already believe to be true. You focus on finding information and examples that support your ideas and ignore any information that is contradictory to your own beliefs.
The confirmation bias is part of the glue holding the cement blocks of racism together. People with racist ideas and beliefs only pay attention to information that supports or confirms their racist ideas. They ignore all information to the contrary.
One of the most prevalent racist’s beliefs is that black people are thugs. Identifying black people as thugs and criminals has been used to justify all sorts of mistreatment like police brutality ending in death, instilling a measure of fear against them, higher rates of incarceration, and longer prison terms, just to name a few.
Recently, my son, Gus, and I were at a family style restaurant eating lunch. Halfway through, two black men walked in and took a seat at the table next to us. The trouble began as soon as they sat down. They were loud, obnoxious, and filled the room with profanity. They were rude towards their server and ordered food which they hurriedly ate. Then, they yelled at their server that the food wasn’t any good and they weren’t going to pay. It was a fiasco which resulted in them being asked to leave. Instead of leaving graciously, they became combative and got into the female manager’s face screaming profanity at her.
As they were finally forced out of the restaurant, Gus turned to me and said, “Not all black people are like my daddy.”
See, Gus doesn’t hold the racist belief that all black people are thugs. In his world, black people are his father, his grandfather, his uncles, his aunts, his cousins, his teachers, his friends, and heroes he looks up to. So, when he saw the men acting outside of what he considered to be his norm of reference, he drew a rather logical conclusion for a six year old. To him, those men represented what we would call an outlier in research. An outlier is “a person or thing differing from other members of a particular group.” Simply put—an outlier lies outside of normal behavior.
If you hold the racist idea that all black men are thugs, chances are you only noticed and paid attention to the fact that two black men came into a family restaurant, created a scene, and verbally assaulted a female manager before being thrown out. What you probably didn’t even notice or pay attention to were the three other black men sitting in the restaurant who quickly jumped up from their seats and rushed to stand beside the manager. They were the only ones who got up to help her. You didn’t allow this to register into the experience because it would have provided evidence that your beliefs are wrong.
Gus saw the entire picture and he was right. Not all black people are like his daddy. But his daddy isn’t the one who is an outlier. Rather, he is the norm. It is the thugs who are the outliers. They are the ones lying outside the norm of the group.
Gus went on to say, “I knew those men were bad guys.”
“How’d you know they were bad guys?” I asked.
“I could see it in their eyes,” he responded promptly.
And that my friends, is where we should all be looking.