Astonishment filled the room.
“You mean I’m… prejudiced?”
There were about 35 of us. It was a resume writer’s conference on the East Coast. Tons of us sat in high school desks, the kind where the seat is attached to the desk part. (There was something wrong with the real room we were supposed to be in. Maybe it helped: feeling like cavalier high school students who thought they knew everything.)
Two women of color stood at the front of the room, blocking a map of the world. One of them had a headband on, her hair poofing up and spilling over it like a fountain. The other had a shaved head with large hoop earrings.
“Surprising isn’t it?” the hoop-earringed one said.
“Don’t hate yourself,” the other instructed.
The exercise worked. We were all prejudiced. Biased. Racist. Whatever you want to call it. Didn’t matter our color, our age, our gender. We all played favorites.
It’s a tough moment: recognizing that you’re not innocent, that you’re part of the problem, even though in the conscious world you are typically and emphatically part of the solution.
The exercise? Simple.
A list of first names with blank space next to them. We were to write down the first thing we thought of as we came to each name, just take a moment to crystalize what formed.
Giggles filled the room. Smiles. Not the good ones, the nervous ones, the coverups. Hands raised, calling over the facilitators to ask questions. From what I could overhear, they were looking for some nuance, an angle to insert into the exercise, to lever their way out of the discomfort.
I knew they were uncomfortable. Because I was uncomfortable.
I’d been writing resumes for years. I love my clients. I want the best for them.
And just like a hiring manager, I look at the resume before I see the person. Indeed, I prefer it this way. I enjoy figuring out who they’re perceived as before I actually get to know them for real. I didn’t realize I was doing some perceiving of my own.
There I was, reading a simple list of names, counting some out and counting others in. I could tell who I’d hire just by my comments in the right column, that and the ease with which those comments came to me. We didn’t need a discussion about it. It was all internal. Our brains were guilty.
A woman at the front of the room asked what we were all thinking: “So what do we do now that we know we’re all racists?”
The room laughed but we couldn’t have been more attentive in that moment. Everyone wanted to know.
The facilitators beamed. This was the whole point of the exercise: to bring us here, to let us dig our own holes, to show us we’d been digging for years, so they could tell us how to get out.
“You can’t pretend you’re not biased,” one of them said. “Life has made you biased.”
The other one piped in: “It’s a survival instinct. Don’t hate yourself.”
“Right.” They looked at each other. Then back at us.
“Instead of fighting the fact that you’re biased, accept it, be aware of it, sit with it, and, most important, try to stop the action that wants to come out next.”
“You might even say ‘stop’ out loud.” She held up her hand.
“Exactly. Whatever it takes. Pause.”
I raised my hand.
“How do you know when you’re in the clear?” I asked. “To act, I mean.”
“Awareness is a powerful thing.” The one with the headband took a step toward me. “Awareness opens the door to empathy. Once you’re aware of what you’re doing and the impact you’re having, your conscience will call on you.”
The other instructor smiled so broadly her earrings moved. “And I’m sure everyone in this room would agree…” Her teeth glowed like the fluorescent lights overhead. “No one wants to be a racist.”