Identity – #4

Race and identity have a very interesting connection.

White people, such as myself, generally do not consider whiteness a part of our identity. When I think of what makes me me, I think of Judaism, feminism, liberalism, humor, music, family, and a host of other influences, but I don’t think of race.

The very idea of race not impacting my identity, though, is ludicrous. So much of my identity is based on the opportunities I have had, and so many of those opportunities are borne of white privilege. The harsh reality white people must face is that we do not imagine race as a part of our identity because there is no cost associated with our race. We do not have to walk the streets aware of our whiteness, we do not apply to jobs with concern over our white-sounding names, we do not have the police called on us for the simple act of existing while white.

Not all people have the privilege to exist without fear.

Last week, I attended an implicit bias training in Baltimore with Dr. Bryant T. Marks of Morehouse College. Dr. Marks began the training with an introduction and an activity. He is allergic to watermelons, has owned many Hyundai cars in his life, received a graduate degree from the University of Michigan, was a barber in college (with no experience), and knew Jay-Z before he was “Jay-Z.” Then he had us submit words to a word cloud with the prompt “give one word examples of what most Americans think of when they see black men.” The word cloud said things like “athlete, criminal, dangerous, thug, mean, strong.”

“I am all the things I told you about before, but when strangers see me they see a black man. And when strangers see a black man, this is what they see – criminal, thug, dangerous, mean,” Dr. Marks told us. He told us to imagine carrying those words with us everywhere we went. To imagine that, no matter who we are or how we personally identify, we cannot shake these identities that do not belong to us. In that moment, I became more keenly aware of the intersection of race and identity than I had ever been before.

Dr. Marks spent 5.5 hours that day teaching us how implicit bias impacts race and identity. Even if a black man does not personally count race as a primary aspect of his identity, society forces that identity upon him. All people have identities forced upon them, Dr. Marks said, but few have such negative immediate connotations. For example, as a white woman, somebody may assume I like Starbucks or that I can’t dance. When somebody makes assumptions about a black person or any person of color, though, it is usually much more pernicious.

The discussions that day culminated with ideas for how to overcome the implicit biases we all experience. Dr. Marks repeated multiple times throughout the day that implicit bias does not make somebody a bad person so long as they does not grow complicit in their bias.

On my train ride home that evening, I took time to reflect and realized the inextricably link between race and identity. For me, I must acknowledge how my whiteness has benefitted me in life, but I must also vow to use the privilege I have as a white woman to fight the inequalities I see in our country.

The biggest lesson I took from the implicit bias training is reinforcing the fact that even if I do not personally associate any value with the racial aspect of my identity, it does positively impact my life in many ways that other people do not experience. This realization drives me to fight to level the playing field.

As strange as it sounds, I must to use my privilege to eliminate my privilege.

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