This past weekend, at the March For Racial Justice in Washington, I had the opportunity to hear from the mother of Philando Castile. Castile, you may recall, was the young black man who was shot repeatedly and killed by a police officer in July of last year while he sat in his car accompanied by his girlfriend (who captured the entire incident on her phone) and her young child. Upon being asked to show his driver’s license, Castile had cautiously informed the officer of a firearm in the car. Moments later, without ever reaching for the firearm, Castile was bleeding to death from five gunshot wounds. His final words: “I wasn’t reaching.”
My heart was broken as I listened to the mother of this young man. Her words, as she tried to described the unimaginable pain of losing a child to such an unnecessary act of violence, filled me with grief. She described the daily reality of young black men in our country, saying that her son had been pulled over by the police 50 times from when he started driving at the age of 17 until he was killed at age 32. What struck me was how she seemed to describe her son’s death as an inevitability – as though she had always known that the time would come when being pulled over by the police would cost him his life.
I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel if my son – whom I love more than life itself – was killed because of an unchecked latent (or overt) prejudice due to the color of his skin. What would I do? How could I speak loudly enough to make people listen to me? To understand that something needs to change?
The events of Charlottesville this past summer woke us up to the alarming rise of overt white nationalism in our country. But there is another, more insidious and widespread type of danger related to race and prejudice in our nation: Implicit racial bias. Implicit racial bias (according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, which publishes an annual Implicit Bias Review) refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. This type of unconscious bias can operate in many different areas of our lives, including where we choose to live, whom we select (or don’t select) to be our doctor, and our first unchecked instincts when a car filled with black teenagers pulls up next to ours.
Astonishingly, there is research that suggests that children who grow up in environments where there are implicit negative racial attitudes, are more likely to exhibit racially prejudiced behavior than those who grow up in environments where there is explicit racism. It is this type of racial prejudice – the implicit kind: the kind most of us have but choose to minimize or ignore, the kind that is harder to eradicate – that is the culprit in most race-related tensions in our nation. And, as we have seen time and time again, can be deadly… especially when there is a split second to make a decision, as is very likely the case with the Philando Castile shooting.
Although in the context of my own homeland, my experience as a Palestinian is much closer to that of blacks in this nation, I am mindfully aware that, living in America, I benefit from white privilege just like most of you. That is why I have to begin with myself by choosing to take a sober and honest look at my own implicit prejudices. I believe that Jesus invited us to this level of soul searching when he instructed his disciples to first address the log in their own eye before pointing out the spec in their neighbor’s eye.
I am convinced that unfamiliarity and lack of exposure is the breeding ground for prejudice. For this reason, I choose to proactively address the implicit prejudice within me by intentionally over-exposing myself to the faces and stories of those whose experiences are different than mine. This isn’t simply about reading one or two books (although that can be a really eye-opening way of understanding the realities of black people in this nation), rather it is about a state of heart, an attitude, an enduring commitment to intentionally and ongoingly become more conscious of, and familiar with, the truth of what it feels like to be black in this country. For the saying is true: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Some reading resources to get you started: