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September 2, 2020

Confronting my personal biases

By Peyton Finley
Author: Peyton Finley

Working for RISE has impacted me personally in a lot of ways. I love the work we do and the mission I get to strive for every day. I feel so fortunate that I not only get to have job satisfaction in the work RISE does but also have the opportunity to learn and grow as a person every single day because of my incredible colleagues and the work they do.

I believe we are always learning, growing and changing as people. No one is a finished product. To think that I have lived and am living my life completely bias-free, fair and equal would be ignorant. I've made comments I wish I could take back and learned from past mistakes when I didn't know any better but was shown grace by my peers. I'm challenged to think with a new perspective and consider how those around me might feel differently.

One area I consistently find myself thinking and learning about is bias. Bias is a core concept we teach at RISE. It's a feeling, thought or inclination that is usually unreasonable or not well thought out. Biases tend to be illogical or inaccurate and are problematic because they don't allow the person bearing the bias to take all the facts or evidence into account when making a decision.

We are instinctually judgmental. It's a survival tactic. Is this going to harm me? Anger me? Harm others? Unfortunately, there are a lot of instincts and judgements that form over time through biases and stereotypes that we don't recognize they're not fair or false. But they've existed so long in our minds, we react without thinking about it. I once heard someone say "We can't control our first thought, but we can control our second thought and our first action." In order to take control of my second thought and first action, I have to recognize the problem with my first thought.

I grew up in a small, southern town for 21 years. My parents have lived in the same house as long as I've been alive, and I went to college not too far from home. The same things, people and values have surrounded me most of my life. It didn't really strike me what I was missing out on until I moved away and realized how much of the world I'd been unaware of. Growing up, most of the kids in my classes looked like me. The teammates on my soccer team, the dancers in my dance class, the friends I spent time with. I didn't even know more than one religion existed until studying it briefly in middle school.

While this might be seen as a safe and comfortable environment, it made me curious and eager to learn more once I knew more was available. It also inhibited me from understanding other people who didn't look or think like me. I learned, much too late in life, about the oppressions and microaggressions facing my peers that I never acknowledged. It now makes for some embarrassing and uncomfortable conversations, but I am so grateful to be given the opportunity to learn and grow.

I was challenged to think more deeply about my biases almost immediately after I moved to New York. I lived in a sublet in Harlem my first six months. My best friend lived in SoHo, and we planned to move in together once her lease ended. Being in a major city for the first time in my life, I experienced more anxiousness than ever before. It took some time to become accustomed to a very different lifestyle and being surrounded by so many cultures and experiences. It was frankly, a lot of mental and emotional stimulation.

As I became more comfortable, however, I started to realize that I was extremely comfortable walking to my friend's apartment in SoHo, a predominantly white and high-income area of the city, but more alert when walking to my apartment in Harlem, a predominantly Black area of the city. I realized the stark difference in my emotion when I left my friend's apartment late one evening after watching a show together.

As I walked to the Subway station near her apartment, I remember feeling happy as children rode bikes, shop owners brought their flower arrangements inside and customers rushed out of the local grocery store with bags full of groceries. The weather was perfect, it was almost the weekend and I was really starting to understand and enjoy the city. After the 30-minute ride from Spring Street to the 135th St Station, I began the short walk to my apartment. It was busy and loud for it to be 10 p.m. on a school night, and I recall feeling nervous. I turned the music down on my headphones so I could hear what was going on around me as my parents' voices rang in my head about the dangers of walking and listening to music.

As I waited to cross a street, I paused my music and stopped to think. What about my current surroundings were causing me to be more anxious than I was 30 minutes ago? Sure, Harlem had higher crime rates than SoHo. But had I ever experienced a crime here? No. Sure, Harlem was busier than SoHo right now, but hadn't it been busy like this since I moved here? Yes. It didn't take a lot of reflection to recognize that I was a minority in the area. What about that made me feel like I had to be more alert?

Simply it was that 23 years of learning through television shows and movies that predominantly Black areas are dangerous and predominantly Black communities mean I'm more likely to experience crime. Twenty-three years of being told to avoid a certain area of town or labeling a neighborhood as a "bad neighborhood." Twenty-three years of peers choosing to go to a certain restaurant or sporting event over another because it was less likely to get rowdy or for someone to get in trouble. Over time, even well-intentioned biases can become ingrained in our instinctual responses to a point of not even realizing why they are there or who they hurt.

I'll be honest – I didn't have that light-bulb moment and as a result all my biases went away. I'm still challenging myself every day to reflect on my thoughts. Is a thought I have in reaction to a moment reflective of a bias? Where does the bias come from, and what makes it untrue? How does this bias not only hurt people around me but ultimately hurt me by preventing the experience of something new?

Racial biases are not the only types of biases. We hold biases about gender, class, nationality and more. And they aren't all necessarily negative as biases in favor of certain attributes exist as well. Positive biases still limit and hurt us and should not be ignored.

Cultural competence, anti-racism and social justice work are not badges we earn and hold onto for the rest of our lives. They are muscles we repeatedly have to flex and work on or they go away. We cannot control our first thought – only our second thought and our first action. What is your second thought today and what is your action?

Peyton Finley is RISE's Manager of Events & Marketing.

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