I was hoping to understand how the media portrays African Americans today, and the impact this portrayal has on policies being passed, so I went to the IOP seminar on it. What I learned is a whole lot about what happens when we predetermine other people’s characteristics. Dawn Turner, an author and former columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has spent much of her life trying to understand race: the differences, the stereotypes, and the way that the human brain categorizes people. Her theories revolve around the following theme: we aren’t always aware of the implicit bias we hold toward different groups of people, and that is because our brains are hard-wired that way. However, we have the power to change that through analyzing our racism and the impact it has on our identity and on the identity of those with whom we interact.
In this way, we can become more introspective and fully digest the immediate thoughts we have instead of just acting on them. Most often, according to Turner, we stereotype when we are fearful. This fear is represented neurologically and then sociologically when we go into fight or flight mode. Some of this is instinctive and natural and about self-preservation. But it also shorthands people and takes away their ability to create their own identity before assumptions are made about them.
Turner invited documentarian Steve James to her seminar to talk about his experiences creating films that work to dispel stereotypes and instead tell nuanced stories. His newest creation, America to Me, examines the lives of young students living in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb that has long been a national model for diversity and integration. Despite its progressiveness, it maintains a huge achievement gap within a very well-funded public school system. James recounted that, ironically, the suburb’s liberal bent is an obstacle to residents having meaningful conversations about this gap and other issues affecting the community. Many African Americans move to Oak Park for the school system but are then faced with a stratification within the schools that segregates white students and black students. One parent in the documentary, a single mom with a college education, moved her son to Oak Park and River Forest High School to provide him the opportunities for achievement. She has high expectations for him and does not want him to be another stereotype. But, as another parent in the documentary explains, “the school doesn’t push kids to meet their highest potential unless they are in honors.” She asserts that not only are students segregated, but there few opportunities for students who are not in honors classes to flourish. As outsiders, Steve and his crew had the unprecedented access inside the school and were able to document the racial divide.
I went to speak to Turner during her office hours at the Institute of Politics to further analyze how to tackle the implicit bias that was at the heart of her seminar. I wanted her opinion on the best way to recognize implicit bias and mitigate it. I wondered: is it by watching documentaries like the type Steve James made that introduce you to the stories of individuals who look different from you? Or is it by having tough conversations with your family members that get to the core of your thoughts as well? Naturally, her response was that it’s both! According to Turner, one method is finding similarities between yourself and someone else. Some conditions stay the same over race barriers, but we seldom notice these because of the separation between the groups. Drug abuse and welfare are two examples that are present in some white communities and black communities. However, when contrasting the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis, the two were treated with a double standard because of the racial divide between them. The opioid crisis, which mostly affected white people, was viewed as a public health crisis and generated an empathetic view in the public eye. On the other hand, the crack epidemic, whose victims were most often black, was viewed as a matter to be handled in the criminal justice system. The stereotypes attached to each community caused vastly different reactions to largely similar situations. Turner posed an additional reason for people to come to terms with their internal bias. She drew my attention to racial profiling and how we think it makes us safe but, in reality, it doesn’t.
She said consider the mass shootings at suburban schools. For the longest we imagined that such shootings happened in tough beleaguered communities. And, while too many do, we miss the fact that a segment of white male teens are growing ever more disenchanted and disillusioned. Shootings should not be normalized in any community and whenever they happen, we must strive to address them equally and on an individual basis. If we start to see people as individuals and become aware of our profiles and expectations, we will no longer leave ourselves unguarded in the artificial comfort of our minds. Instead, we will be active information seekers and keep our senses alert and inquisitive. Although we have consumed these stereotypes, we must learn to recognize them. Only then can we identify the best ways to effectively fight against them—as Turner exemplifies—and allow people to define themselves individually.
Dawn Turner assisted in editing and curating this article. The image was provided by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics website.