A few months ago, I made the 12-hour drive from northern Montana, to visit my mom in central Wyoming. On the way, I needed to make a pit stop but was in the middle of a Native-American reservation. I felt nervous to stop but finally made a desperate decision to pull into a gas station. As I walked in and started looking for the restroom, I realized I felt afraid and was wondering if my husband would be upset that I was stopping in the place.
I stopped in my tracks. Where in the world were those negative, fearful thoughts coming from?
We lived 15 minutes from a Native American reservation when I was growing up, and standing in the gas station, I realized that over the years I had unconsciously developed a negative, judgmental view of Native Americans. All of those thoughts that I had tucked into my brain over a few decades came with me into the gas station. As I’ve thought about that experience lately, I have to tell you that I’ve never had one single negative encounter with a Native American. I can’t think of a single one.
Where did those negative thoughts come from then? I do not know. Maybe a little bit from watching westerns, from what I saw and judged from afar growing up, or from comments I heard from others. What really matters is not where they came from but the fact that they exist in my brain now.
In the middle of the gas station, I decided I was being ridiculous, and I made a conscious effort to see the Native Americans around me as valuable people, refusing to judge them before I even knew them.
So, I used the restroom as planned and then went to buy myself a pack of gum at the cash register, greeting the woman with a friendly smile. She greeted me back in an equally warm and friendly manner, and we had a lovely exchange of conversation. On my way out the door, a man kindly held the door open for me. I felt sick that I would have missed seeing these beautiful Native Americans, if I hadn’t pulled back the reins on my initial thoughts and feelings.
I’m reading a book right now called, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova. (This is not a book endorsement, as I haven’t even finished reading it yet.) In it, the author talks about the brain attic and the natural bias we have toward things and people because of what has been stored in our brain attic over the years.
Due to the riots that occurred last spring and the shouts of racism, I spent the summer reading and listening, trying to understand the guttural cry coming from so many black people. I heard one woman say that white people are racist, to which I took offense.
But after reading Mastermind and thinking about bias, I realize I do have a natural bias against other ethnicities. My first seconds of thought, when I see someone of another ethnicity, is often negative or contains a bias of stereotype. But what I also know, from my experience in the gas station, is that I can catch myself immediately, when a bias causes me to make a split-second, unfair judgment, and switch mental directions.
I can think better.
Maria Konnikova says we can “understand our attics” and “try our best to set the starting point back to a more neutral one.” Our natural bias doesn’t have to be the one upon which we act. She says that whatever “prime” has triggered our bias “stops being a prime once we’re aware of its existence.”
If you had asked me a few months ago if I were a racist toward Native Americans, I would have said a loud and offended, “Absolutely not!” But today I’ll admit humbly that somewhere along the way I picked up a bias toward that ethnic group.
Yes. I am biased. It pains me to say it, but obviously it’s true.
I am not racist, however, because by the power of God living in me, I can be obedient to Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 10:5:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
It goes against our knowledge of God to be judgmental and prideful toward people of other ethnicities, people made in the very image of God and thus equal in value to ourselves. As followers of Christ, we can take those biased and impulsive first quick, judgmental thoughts and make them obey Christ. Maria Konnikova says, “The right motivation can counteract bias and render it beside the point in terms of actual behavior.” If we are motivated to humble ourselves, to love, and to lift up the other person, we can purposefully behave in a way that renders the bias ineffective.
Martin Luther King Jr. said this:
Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets.
So, I end with two challenges for us. First, may we go before God and ask him to reveal the biased thoughts in our brain attics, thoughts that are prideful and judgmental toward people. Let’s just be honest with ourselves. Second, let’s be determined to practice stopping in our tracks when we recognize a bias has kicked in and purposefully do the mental work to discover the neighbor in the other person. It will be hard, repetitive work, but God will help us change if we will humble ourselves and ask for his help.