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The Bias Boundary

I am biracial. That’s how I describe myself. I am not as pale as my father and not as dark as my mom. I am in between, a beautiful tan, a unique person.

Yes, I am black and black culture has influenced me, but so does white culture. I am perpetually a minority. I don’t belong in one racial group but multiple.

I am known as “the whitest black person [they] have ever met” by a few of my white peers.

I have been told that I don’t speak like a black person because my English is that of an educated young person.

If someone says to me, “You’re so white!”

I reply, “Well, 50 percent.”

“Are you half and half?” they ask.

“I’m not coffee creamer,” I say, “but yes, I am biracial.”

When people see me, they try and fit me into a category, into a small box. A compartment of understanding so they can sort into whatever filling system that’s in their minds. The problem is boxes can’t define who I am.

In the past I have filled out standardized forms. There are questions that ask for my standard information like name, age and gender. After these standard questions comes a question on race, and all the options are described differently, singularis. It states, “‘What race are you?’, ‘Mark your race.’, or ‘Fill in the box that applies to you.’” It’s a choice you pick based on facts that you find true. The fact of what I am has been a dilemma for most who have looked at me. While it may seem that race is a simple trait that relates to your person, for me it’s not so simple.

Sometimes the instructions for choosing my race indicate to mark as many as apply, so I fill in the boxes white and black. When I cannot pick more than one, I end up marking both anyway, or I fill in “other.”

As I face these boxes requiring one answer, I feel doubt and confusion about my racial identity. A single box cannot define me. That box cannot bind me to only one race. The boundaries that are set do not contain all that I am.

I went to a college fair where they had me fill out an online form. I tried to mark more than one race, but it wouldn’t allow me to choose both. I got the attention of one of the workers and asked him why it wouldn’t allow me to select more than one. He told me that the computer was not able to do that, so I should just mark the one with which I most identify. He told me to pick one — as if it was an easy decision, probably because for him it was easy. He had the advantage of being one race, so he would not understand my predicament. If I check just one race, what does that say about the other half of my family and history? I would be excluding them from my identity, yet they are an essential part of who I am.

American history tells of the one-drop rule: having one ancestor who was black (one drop of black blood in the family tree) classified you as black. This was used in the 19th century to identify who was classified as a black slave, but was not used as a law to classify race until the 20th century. So on that college fair form, I wrote black. That matches what it says on my medical file, even though I don’t consider myself to be black, because half of my genes come from my white father. Saying that I am not white would be like disowning my father’s side of the family and ignoring half of my heritage.

Clara Chun is a girl who knows what it means to have a variety of different ethnicities. “I’m a Thai-Chinese, Korean, white girl. It’s about as confusing as it sounds, but I refuse to not acknowledge a single part of my identity because all of it exists,” Chun posted on the Race Card Wall, a project to start conversation in America about race.

The fact that Chun feels the need to inform others of her race is a result of the perception of racial bias. This unconscious assumption of another on the basis of their appearance is an example of implicit bias. Implicit bias has infested the foundation of society. It’s created by people’s own experiences, exposure, stereotypes and attitudes toward a certain race that causes unreasonable treatment. Implicit bias is an unconscious form of discrimination that results in unequal treatment of certain groups, including racial ones.

A 2012 study at the University of Washington School of Medicine, conceptualized by J.A. Sabin and Anthony G. Greenwald, used identical cases of common pediatric conditions to examine how implicit or racial bias affected the course of healing and treatment. The cases were based on types of pain management the physicians prescribed for their patients. The result showed that the pediatricians were more likely to give painkillers to white patients than black patients. Pediatricians’ unconscious attitudes and stereotypes about the patients’ races were tied with the course of treatments they were recommended to follow. The physicians’ pro-white implicit bias led to recommending narcotic medication to the white patients more often than the black patients.  

Another example of implicit bias is with criminal sentencing and their relation to  afrocentric features. The study showed that the criminals with the most prominent afrocentric features, like big lips or a wide nose, were sentenced to longer and harsher sentences.

These are just two ways in which implicit bias has affected the society we inhabit today. It really hurts individuals, whether or not it’s a conscious way of thinking. However, the U.S. Census has proposed to add new ethnicities, Middle Eastern or North African descent, to add more detailed specifics on the race category to the 2020 survey. If Americans are not able to correctly identify themselves, it makes it hard to have an accurate picture of the U.S. population. According to Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute, it will help to collect more accurate data and let Americans better self-describe their ethnicities. Advocates see this change as a benefit for voting protections and policy implications, but there is also the risk of the mishandling of information. Law enforcement could target MENA (Middle Eastern North African) communities and continue applying implicit biases and stereotyping to interpret the census data.

Implicit bias should not only be recognized at a national or bigger generalized level, but also at a local, smaller and more personal one. In schools, students and staff are susceptible to these implicit biases as well that may negatively affect students’ high school experiences. People need to realize that this is real and is impacting lives. It may not seem as serious as medical care or jail sentences, but it makes a difference. No matter how big, judgement based on assumptions is demeaning and unjust. The bias needs to be broken.

Teachers may make assumptions based on the color of someone’s skin. However, not all Asian students will be good at math. Not all students of a darker pigmentation will be able to rap or break dance. Race is a trait that defines someone’s history and background. Race has nothing to do with defining personality or inner traits. A quote off of the board of the Race Card Project by Alex Campbell describes this situation. “Race generalization is not for everyone, it should never go past the simple idea of convenience.”

Also on The Race Card Wall is a way to help regular citizens express their views on racism and racial bias in our country. The project lets people submit their thoughts, experiences and observations concerning race in six words. You can read a few entries on the wall to learn what others have gone through and what this topic means to them. Personally, it was interesting to see other people’s view on race.

Look Different is a project created by MTV to help spread the word about bias. They have created a “seven-day bias cleanse” with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. It provides daily tasks to help participants to de-bias themselves. Even if you have been the victim of implicit bias in your life, that doesn’t mean that your mind or assumption about others is free from bias. Help break the bias boundary. Boxes are too confining; it’s time that we start thinking outside of them.

Awareness needs to spread about this form of discrimination in order to challenge racism in our community. I sincerely urge you to go on one of the sites previously mentioned to step into another’s shoes and learn something about bias that you didn’t know before.

About Marisa Thomas

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