For several years, I taught the very first graduate school course a student would take to become a counselor. I loved this class. We spent each semester talking through why they wanted to be a therapist, basic principles of providing mental health care, and examining the myths and truths of counseling.
One of the lessons I valued most each semester was the night we spent considering our biases. One of the primary goals of counseling is for the therapist to be aware of and avoid imposing their own beliefs and values upon the client. As you might imagine, this requires the therapist to have done the hard internal work of examining themselves — a process many of these students had never done intentionally, publicly, or with the permission to be honest.
The exercise was always the same. I would ask the students to consider groups of people and observe their “gut” reactions. The goal was to consider who they may have trouble working with based on their personal values. Then we would share.
There were always a few who initially believed they didn’t have any biases. They “valued all people equally”, “didn’t see color”, and “had friends of all backgrounds” as evidence. There were also a couple who would offer “safe” answers like, “I don’t like criminals” to avoid giving a potentially offensive answer. But then there was one, always one, who would risk something like this, “I sometimes feel scared of Black people when I don’t know them.” And you could feel the shame, and the permission, begin to grow in the room.
“I think poor people are lazy.”
“I am turned off by outspoken women.”
“I don’t want to work with teenagers, they are too self-centered.”
“I hate liberals.”
“Republicans are racist.”
“Religious people make me uncomfortable.”
“I think being in a sorority is stupid.”
“I would cross the street if I saw you coming.”
I know these statements may be shocking to read, but in the room, they were not said with confidence. Instead, they were almost whispered, heavy with the awareness that they didn’t want to feel this way or think this way but they did — and so do we.
There is simply no way for us to exist in a country so historically threaded with systemic racism, gender inequality, and political dichotomy and not be affected — often without realizing it. While we are not born with bias, even in our earliest days we are influenced by powerful media, our own culture, and the immediate impact of family and friends. And while certainly some of this influence will be positive, no one grows up in a utopia. Messages about power, privilege, and inequality are unavoidable and we must be willing to consider which ones we may have consciously, or unconsciously, absorbed.
This process of identifying and challenging our biases is hard. It means we have to get really honest with ourselves. It means having to recognize that there are ways we sometimes think about others that aren’t fair or right, even if we don’t act on them. It means facing the hard truth that some of the things we learned from the people we love, or in the country we love, need to change. Remember, just because we’ve been influenced toward bias in certain ways doesn’t mean we have to stay there.
One final thought. While this call to look into our biases is not entirely about race, the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd (and many others before them) have shaken many of us. As a middle-class white woman in a small, mostly white midwestern town, I have the option to ignore this. Where I live and who I am means I have the choice to stay comfortable or not. But, if I choose to stay comfortable, any biases I may hold will likely remain uncovered, and tragically, unchanged. I say I am an ally. And if I’m really going to be, I regularly need to be doing the hard work of looking within myself to make sure that’s true. It will not “just happen”.
As the world continues to wake up, I think back to those years of teaching. I watched with awe as student after student bravely began to acknowledge the ways they had been influenced, the biases they held as a result, and the freedom that came from knowing they could now challenge the thoughts they no longer wanted to carry. We can only do better when we know better. And we only know better when we lean in, listen, and grow. Let’s be brave folks. Maybe, if enough of us do the hard work of changing inside, the outside world will finally change too.
Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash