It’s shameful but not necessarily shocking that a group of high school students in Georgia are struggling for the right to have an integrated prom. Here’s the story about the black girls and white girls who have been friends for a long time but are STILL not allowed to go to the same prom. Obviously it’s very discouraging to know that struggles with wildly racist notions are still happening in 2013. 

In his book Strangers to Ourselves, University of Virginia professor Timothy D. Wilson speaks of a study on biases which was conducted in twenty different US locations. This study examined the level of bias faced by people of color while meeting with real estate agents as they asked about buying or renting homes and apartments. The results demonstrated that the amount of discrimination encountered was about the same as what was found in a similar study 12 years ago. Twelve years have passed and still no improvement.

Bill Quigley provides fourteen examples of racism in the criminal justice system in this Huffington Post article.  After working for twelve years as the founder and executive director of a non-profit created to deal with racism in the criminal justice system, I have considerable experience with the frequency and the severity of these problems and their impact on individuals, families and communities. It’s just so wrong.

These realities can be discouraging but I suggest that we have reason to hang on to optimism and to persevere.

In his book, Professor Wilson also presents us with a better understanding of our minds. He provides evidence that in addition to our conscious mind, a huge part of our mental and emotional processing takes place in our unconscious mind. He explains that the unconscious mind is composed of two parts: the pre-conscious mind and the subconscious mind. With lots of effort we can eventually access information in our pre-conscious mind but Professor Wilson maintains that we are completely unable to directly access the content of our subconscious mind. And, he provides support for the theory that the subconscious mind can contain content and beliefs that can be in direct conflict with the beliefs that we hold in our conscious mind. So, a person who sincerely believes that they are completely unbiased can still behave in ways that show that a bias does in fact exist in their subconscious mind.

Here’s a link to a tool that is becoming a widespread system for assessing people’s unconscious biases.  I encourage people to take this test. Even if you are sure that you have no prejudices; in fact, especially if being unbiased is important to you, please take the test. This system comes with a warning. “You may learn some surprising news about yourself.” But, if we are to fix these problems, we need to first uncover them.

A lot of excellent anti-racism work has been done over the past few decades and A LOT of progress has been to change the CONSCIOUS MIND beliefs. I am certain about that. But, the actions of many indicate that this hasn’t yet translated into a more just society. To me, that confirms that biases still linger undetected in many, many subconscious minds. How might we respond to this discouraging information?

Well, let’s assume that everyone has biases in their subconscious mind and that these biases can never be directly accessed. That does sound grim but here’s the good news. Just as I wrote about in the post ACT AS IF UNTIL YOU BELIEVE YOURSELF,  evidence gathered by Professor Wilson and his colleagues shows that you can change your subconscious content by making sure that all your actions match the beliefs that are held by your conscious mind. Over time they report, your subconscious does change! For example, a teacher might discover that although they believe that they treat boys and girls equally in class, their actions show that they don’t. So, to correct that the teacher might literally use a counter to determine how many times boys are called upon versus girls. Once the problem is completely uncovered, the corrections can be made. That’s it! That’s the answer. Be willing to accept the bad news that your subconscious beliefs might not match your conscious mind beliefs. Be willing to take actions to objectively assess your actions. Self-observation isn’t to make you feel bad about yourself. Instead, it is to feel good knowing that you are willing to do this work. If you do determine that there is a problem, make a plan to correct your actions.


You might notice that this requires that people be willing to explore the darker side of themselves. If they refuse to admit that they have a bias, they will never do anything to fix it. I propose that it is damaging to be afraid to uncover our biases and if you really are committed to justice and fair treatment for all, you will hopefully be willing to accept the discomfort of this work. In the long run, it’s well worth it!

This has to be a long term effort but it WILL work!

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” ~ Gandhi


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  1. Nat Nelson says :

    I couldn’t believe this story! I read what Timothy Wilson said and I took the test, according to which I am moderately sexist and racist. Still trying to work out what to do with this as I don’t consider myself to be either. Although there is a big difference to having a slight bias to be an complete and utter bigot. I think humans inherently follow stereotypes and bias as a throwback to the stone age and as a type of survival method. Being initially suspicious of everything and anyone until you have confirmed the danger is over and then embrace it. However, the next level is that you retain that suspicion. Reading this story was unbelievable that open segregation is still taking part and even sadder that young people are participating. On the plus side good to see others trying to bring about change.

  2. Kozo says :

    Great post, Lea. I am reading a book called Are We Born Racist that argues the same thing. We have innate biases, but we can change them. I love the idea of “fake it until we make it.” I’m going to take the test and join the change. {{{Hugs}}} Kozo

    • leazengage says :

      Yes, it can be discouraging when we realize how hard it is to change… But, it is definitely possible! 🙂 As always, thanks for your support. I appreciate you!

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