Recently, podcast guest Tamara Steele discussed the difference between unintentional biases and blatant racism. She expressed that PEI had more instances of unintentional biases then racism, and I wanted to explore what unintentional biases are for those unaware. Washington.edu defines unintentional biases as “Unintended bias or unconscious bias refers to stereotypes or beliefs that affect our actions in a discriminatory manner”. Tamara described instances such as people assuming she had never lived in the cold because of her colour, people asking to touch her hair, or even assuming her skin had a different texture because of her melanin and asking to touch that as well. While these may seem like harmless curiosities, they are actually quite harmful.
I believe that most instances of unintentional bias come from a curiosity sparked by ignorance. As previously stated, a lot of these biases come from a belief that things we as human have in common (hair, skin) are different because of melanin. White people are uninformed and ignorant about Black hair, so instead of asking questions to gain more knowledge, they have a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction and only want to experience it (through touch, gawking). White people see a different skin colour and make ignorant assumptions like it must feel different to touch as well. White people assume that the majority of Black people come from Africa, which they know is a different temperature, so they enquire if Black people can handle the colder Canadian climate. While I truly hope and believe that these assumptions come from a lack of knowledge, the way that White people interact with Black people treats us like circus acts and animals they have never seen or experienced because they act as though they must learn about them through experience. Instead of making assumptions and trying to experience our Blackness and Otherness, White people (or any person for that matter) could and should simply ask us about what makes us different.
The problem with continuing to treat people as if they are “different” versus “unique” is that people will cast general aspersions and assume that an entire group of people having a different trait is a negative thing because it is not the status quo, norm, or majority. I remember the moment in school everyone realized my hair was different. It was different than the curls they were used to, it certainly wasn’t straight, and instead of making me feel unique, I was made to feel different – because it wasn’t only Hillary who had this hair type, so I couldn’t be unique. I was now a novelty, someone who was different but was close enough to be examined under the white lens and microscope and then judged. That assumption, and unintentional bias, is harmful because it erases all history of Black immigrants who have worked very hard to get to Canada. It erases the stories to Canadians who are Black and just happen to be born here.
There comes a certain point, as Tamara mentioned, where unintentional bias becomes intentional racism. As I’ve previously said, unintentional bias is just that – unintentional, and while it is a behaviour that is racist adjacent, it is not as racist as calling someone the ‘N’ word. That being said, if a Black person tries to correct someone’s behaviour and they continue to act in a certain way that bias is now intentional, and therefore racist. If I have explained the difference in my hair texture and have explained that touching it makes me uncomfortable and you continue to do so that is harassment and racist. If you find the way Black people act “entertaining” so you ask the only Black person you know to repeat answers to questions in front of others, like a performance, that is racist. If you have the power to be educated properly and you are still acting ignorant, that is racism at its finest.
We are at a time right now where we have the power to be the most educated generation, and simultaneously we are the most ignorant. Everyone has Google at their fingertips so there is no excuse to treat Black people as if they are a circus act and force them to answer questions about how they are different to you. I’m not saying never ask a person of colour questions about their culture. I feel strongly that education is the way to solve ignorance, but before you ask a Black person a question they have possibly answered countless times, or they are tired of needing to explain, use all of your resources. Just because you have a Black friend does not mean they are at your disposal for Black People Trivia.
At the root of all racism is ignorance and a lack of education. Certain people choose to hate Black people because they perceive us and our differences to be negative. The more white people that are educated on what makes us different, on what our differences mean, and unlearn their unintentional biases the less racism the world will suffer. Ending racism starts with less general assumptions and stereotypes being made, and more Google searches and leading questions being asked. Only then can White people call out other White people when Blacks aren’t in the room. Only then can all allies understand the struggles we’ve gone through. And maybe as our generation gets smarter, and the racists get weeded out, called out, fired, cancelled, will we have a safe place to raise our future Black and minority generations.