Is it possible to be prejudiced without realizing it? In “Is This How Discrimination Ends?,” the writer Jessica Nordell unpacked the complex and controversial science of implicit racial bias—the idea that people can act in biased ways even when they sincerely reject discriminatory ideas. Many readers responded with stories of their own experiences with bias, whether witnessing it, being the victim of it, or recognizing it in themselves.
On the receiving end, Sherletta McCaskill, who’s black, detailed her time working at an organization that serves homeless youth:
I was promoted to a new position but paid less than my male white co-worker, though I had more experience. This same co-worker revealed to me that management said I needed to “prove myself” first. To the organization’s credit, this division of the company did invest in diversity and anti-racism training. However, the results were very shallow. Workers of color who spoke up were seen as divisive, while workers who “stayed in their place” were rewarded. We could speak about issues of race as long as we didn't make white people feel uncomfortable.
Another reader recalled a bank manager’s two reasons for why he brought a white man with a high-school degree into a management-training program, but not the head teller—a black woman who’d graduated college:
“He reminded me of myself when I was just starting out.” And, even more damning (but still totally unconscious): “He just looked like a banker.”
And then there’s this cringe-worthy story, from Marilyn Mackay:
In 1961, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which at that time was populated easily by 85 percent black residents. It was Saturday morning as I walked down the main street of Charlotte Amalie and saw a large crowd of white tourists who had just disembarked from a cruise ship. They had all stopped walking down the street staring at something behind me. As I reached them, a gentleman asked me what was happening. I turned around and saw a large group of black teenagers leaving our movie theater en masse. I looked at him puzzled and asked, “What do you mean ‘what’s happening?’” He said, “that mob over there.”
I smiled as kindly as I could and said, “It’s Saturday morning and those teenagers just left the movie theater.” One could see their terror turn to mortification as they realized their reactions and why.
Other readers admitted times they caught their own biases in action. For this woman, it happened while she was playing tennis with three friends:
We were the only people on the courts when we started. After about an hour or so, a young black male with a hoodie pulled up over his head wearing baggy sweat pants came to the tennis courts and started walking the perimeter just outside of the fence where we were playing.
Although I don’t live in the development where I was playing tennis, I know there aren’t many people of color who live there. There was an immediate tension and distraction among the tennis players, and though no one said anything out loud, all turned their attention towards the hooded interloper. What is he doing here? He doesn’t belong here. Is he here to hurt us? Steal from us? Break into our cars?
I can only imagine what was going through everyone’s heads, because, sadly, these questions were going through mine. You see, I am a black female.