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Jul 11, 2022

“My dog is racist”

Googling “My dog is racist” will return 1.2 million hits. “Are dogs racist?” – over a million hits. Of course, dogs are not intrinsically racist, but their owners train them to be. Most often, it happens completely unconsciously. Dogs are not that smart in many respects, but they are very good at reading subtle behavioral cues. If you tense up, pull a leash a little shorter, when you see someone different, or engage more often with people who are similar to you, the dogs will pick up on that and eventually learn the unconscious bias from you.

This is nothing new, and there has been some empirical research to back the story up. If anything, the phenomenon is an irrefutable evidence to support the existence of unconscious bias. (Yes, some people still do not believe it exists). However, I think it is important to remind, that just like dogs, humans are capable of learning subconsciously from each other as well. Kids will sense their parents tensing, or using exaggeratedly polite expressions, or somehow treating people differently depending on their identity. Neither the teacher nor the learner is aware of the lesson, and yet the transmission of such implicit attitude does occur. Just like a virus, prejudice does not need the carrier’s intent to be passed on.

It is difficult to unlearn what you do not remember learning. As I attended Resmaa Menakem’s workshop last week, that much became abundantly clear to me. He encourages all of us to refocus on our bodies, learn to read what our bodies are telling or hiding from us, and eventually overcome both the implicit trauma and the implicit bias we may suppress away from the consciousness. This is why racist, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice are such hard problems to solve. We are dealing with much more than just the self-aware human mind. We cannot talk our rational minds out of it.

As I am thinking about our own social justice agenda, I am more and more convinced that we should think of it in terms of two buckets – the quick and the slow. The quick are policies and curriculum we need to change to eliminate barriers. That can be done relatively quickly. However, classroom pedagogy, the interpersonal interactions among people – are different kind of phenomena altogether. They are significantly connected to the unconscious minds, and deeper, to our somatic constitutions. Confusing the two types of change, using the same strategies for both seems to be a mistake. I am not saying we should give up or literally go slow. We just need to use different strategies on the slow problems.

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