How Color Blindness Has Failed Us

Jonathan Brack, manager of strategic partnerships at Tipping Point, recently sat down with Allison Briscoe-Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Wright Institute and long-standing collaborator for Tipping Point’sMental Health Initiative, which provides mental health support to the organization’s grantees.

Through trainings for case managers, literacy tutors and school counselors on the front lines, to consultation with executive teams at groups like Reading Partners and Citizen Schools, Allison’s expertise in race and trauma has proven to be an invaluable asset in the fight against Bay Area poverty.

Jonathan is the architect of Tipping Point’s forthcoming grantee workshop series on diversity, equity and inclusion; he asked Allison for her take on the insidiousness of bias, how to talk to children about challenging issues in the news, and our collective role in addressing inequity.

Jonathan Brack: When did your interest in race and trauma first develop?

Allison Briscoe-Smith: I grew up mainly in Hawaii and the Caribbean, both places where race functions much differently than it does here. My dad was the director of emergency medical services in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we were living when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. I remember waking up the morning after the storm and standing outside. The wind had blown so fast that the trees caught on fire. There was someone else’s roof in our front yard. Our house was spared, but we had no electricity or running water for two and a half months. We never got our phone back.

Because of my dad’s position, we were some of the first responders to the rest of the community. I did first aid, patching folks up. So in terms of being interested in post-traumatic stress disorder, it started then. There was also a sense of injustice. We didn’t get relief services until mainland America got hit. The media showed us as savages in the jungle, using machetes to cut our way out. I was 12 years old, trying to understand why we weren’t getting help. It was my first experience of overt racism.

JB: What do we know about the intersection of poverty, mental health and race?

ABS: Poverty and mental health are directly connected in many ways. We know that exposure to what it means to be poor — less access to education, housing, health services — itself contributes to mental health decline. For the working family that can’t find a place to live and ends up in their car, their stress level goes up, their sleep is reduced, and their access to healthy food is down. The other way to think about it is that when you have mental health challenges that are not met by a system of care, you are more likely to become poor. Mental illness can compromise your ability to work or your keep your home, and losing either or both of these resources can lead to a downward economic slide.

If we add race into the mix, we have to think about a few things. The majority of people in this country are white, so the largest group of people who experience poverty are also white. But, black and brown folks are disproportionately likely to be poor. African Americans in particular are more likely to experience poverty. In San Francisco, only 6% of the city’s population is African American, but 36% of its homeless population is African American. We also have evidence that shows that people who experience racism are more likely to have health challenges, both physical and mental. Both poverty and racism are stressors.

JB: What is implicit bias?

ABS: Implicit bias is unconscious, automatic thought that is often aligned with prevailing stereotypes about groups of people. Implicit bias is outside of our awareness — we see it in certain physical reactions like eye blinking or fear — that can impact our judgment or sway our “gut feeling.” Research shows that our implicit biases are directly related to our decision making, especially when we’re busy, have to make multiple decisions at once, or feel time pressure. For this reason, policing, classroom discipline, or interactions with strangers on the street are common scenarios where implicit bias appears.

JB: How does implicit bias enable discrimination?

ABS: One psychologist, Dr. Beverly Tatem, uses an analogy of smog in the environment to talk about implicit bias. Smog is the messaging we receive about who holds power in our society. Like pollution, these messages are daily and persistent. We have implicit bias about race: Research shows that people with Afrocentric- or Latino-sounding names are less likely to be hired than those with white-sounding names, even when their resumes are equivalent. We also have implicit biases about being poor: A study proved that when we see people asking for money on the street, the part of our brain that recognizes humans doesn’t light up, the part of our brain that recognizes objects does. We literally dehumanize those in need. Smog isn’t good for anybody — it hinders our ability to create an equitable society — but it differentially impacts those already on the downside of power. Today in this country, we receive messages that black men are to be feared, messages that too often lead to death.

JB: What can we do to mitigate implicit bias?

ABS: The majority of efforts to reduce implicit bias have been aimed at the individual, to protect oneself from it, or minimize reliance on it as a decision-making factor. But we have to change what messages are out there. Media is one thing, but there is also plenty to address in what we see around us every day. Who do we elect to lead our country? Who do we support to reach positions of power? I recently read that of all tenured professors at American universities, only 2% are African American women. If we want to reduce bias in hiring and see more African American women in academia, we have to have enough people of color in those positions to model the opportunity and give them access.

Implicit bias challenges the notion of color blindness, the idea that if we don’t notice difference, everything will be okay. The continued persistence of silence — silence around stepping over a homeless person, silence around acknowledging our own wealth, silence around drastic changes in our neighborhoods — is actually violence. It creates the environment we see now. I think we need to move to a more complicated notion of difference. Acknowledging implicit bias is a way to increase awareness and move folks to action.

JB: You’ve spoken extensively on how to talk to children about race and wrote an article about speaking to kids about Trump. What are your thoughts on recent events like the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge?

ABS: We should be talking to our children, even our youngest children, about what is going on in our country. If we don’t, someone else is going to talk to them about it, which means they will learn about violence in the world without the support of a parent. We know that black kids whose parents do not talk about race have higher rates of anxiety and lower rates of academic functioning. They are unable to manage the real world around them. The consequences, honestly, for white children are less and it can feel like a much harder topic to raise to children who might not see these issues firsthand or feel them in the same ways. But if we don’t prepare our children to see, identify, talk about, and do something about injustice in the world around them, I would argue that we keep perpetuating the dynamics we have today.

That said, we should approach these conversations in a very tailored, developmentally appropriate way. Validate your child’s experiences and work hard to connect. Let them know you are there for them. Detail where they are safe: “You’re safe right here in my lap. You’re safe at home. You’re safe at school.” I also suggest that parents come up with mission statements. What do you want to teach your kids? Who do you want your kids to be? This can help you identify the opportunities to talk about something new and potentially difficult, and guide you in that discussion. If it’s important to you to take care of the planet, for example, you will talk about it if you see your child littering. Or when you see people living on the street, you might talk about how we haven’t provided enough housing.

JB: What gives you hope?

ABS: Back when I was in college, there was a big debate in the field of psychology about false memories. For my honors thesis, I tested if people were more likely to recall information congruent with stereotypes or not. As part of my research, I asked kids to pair positive and negative attributes with pictures of black or white people. There was one little girl, probably eight or nine years old, white, who refused to do it. I had candy, and I was under pressure to complete the trial, but she held firm. “My parents told me that you shouldn’t judge people based on the color of their skin,” she said. The fact that this child was able to defy an adult to live in accordance with her beliefs has always stayed with me. It gives me hope that we can all do that, and that we can raise children who do that.

More recently, I went to a talk and the speaker, Ken Hardy, said he knows when he is using his privilege correctly because it’s uncomfortable, and it hurts a bit. I think there is some truth to the idea that if I’m going to leverage my privilege to affect change, then I will feel some discomfort. If I don’t feel that, then I’m not using my privilege in the right way. The role of philanthropy is to keep seeking opportunities to give in a way that makes you feel something. I like this notion that there is a real sensation, a test we can give ourselves, to know how well we are or are not acting on what we deeply believe.