My grandmother was a maid for a prominent white family in the small town where we lived. She would take me to work with her sometimes.
One day her boss’s grandkids were in town, and she took me along to play with them. I loved my grandma and saw how much pride she took in her duties, and I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be a maid like her.
The adults were talking while we played on the floor. My grandmother was working in the kitchen. One of the adults asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I don’t remember the other kids’ responses, but I announced, aloud in a room full of white people, that I wanted to be a maid like my grandma.
The adults began clapping, and I was smiling, thinking I had made a good choice and that my grandmother would be proud of me, until she flew out of the kitchen.
She got on her knees and grabbed me by both shoulders. Her glare felt like it was burning a hole straight through to my soul.
“You will never be a maid!” she said. “Do you think I am doing this because I want to? I’m doing this because I have to. You will go to college.”
There was complete silence and awkwardness among the adults. On our way home that day, my grandmother explained that she always wanted to be a nurse but there were only a few places in the U.S. that would allow it. She wanted a better life for my sister and me than she had created for herself. Of course, at such a young age, I didn’t understand this. I just thought she would be proud of me because I wanted to be like her. Why couldn’t she be a nurse? White people.
I never heard her say anything bad about white people but what she didn’t realize is that she inexplicably taught me that there is a “them” and an “us.” My young mind understood that there were different rules, and they made them up. Bias was introduced to me innocently and unconsciously, as a way to protect me.
As I grew up and had my own negative experiences with some white people, it reinforced my bias but I had to put it in perspective. We know that not all cops are bad, not all black people are criminals, not all white people are racist, not all gay men are feminine, not all lesbians are masculine and not all Muslims are terrorists. I could go on but the point is that when we stuff groups of people into one box based on the actions of a few, its BS or Bias Synapse.
You cannot allow your biases to go unchecked, because they turn into the phobias and isms: racism... sexism ... homophobia ... xenophobia, which are the basis for hate groups... police brutality... marginalized communities... violent protests.... More important, depending upon your role in society, bias can lead to death. We need to get comfortable discussing the uncomfortable and have the conversations that will make a difference personally and professionally.
History is full of pain and inequality. It falls to each of us to learn about the events that haunt our fellow citizens — the Holocaust for Jews, slavery for African Americans, land theft for Native Americans, internment for Japanese Americans, and more. Real injustices have laid the foundation for racism and suspicion.
Yet, there is a gray area between recognizing difference and respecting everyone equally. I’ve seen how the simple concept of respecting each other sometimes gets lost in history’s details. In missing the forest for the trees, people become jaded or feel blame and turn off to embracing the humanity in each other because competing narratives dredge up painful feelings on all sides. It is validated pain, but it is still pain that keeps us living in an us-versus-them world.
This pain keeps us from acceptance and openness. We need to learn to identify, own and confront our biases because there is no them. It is only us. All of us.
Risha Grant is a diversity and inclusion consultant and author of “That’s BS! How Bias Synapse Disrupts Inclusive Cultures and the Power to Attract Diverse Markets.”