The Power of Bias and How to Disrupt It in Our Children (with Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt)

Dr. Jennifer Eberhart, author of the best-selling book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, joins Janet to discuss how racial bias develops in the brain and creates disparities in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and the criminal justice system. As the mother of three sons, Jennifer has also witnessed the effects of bias in real time. She and Janet explore some of the steps parents can take to combat the development of bias in their children. “Preschoolers are picking this up and determining who’s a good person, who’s a bad person… They need our help in comprehending what’s going on around them and helping them to make sense of it.”

Jennifer is a Stanford University professor and a faculty director of SPARQ , a university initiative to use social psychological research to address pressing social problems. She has been named a MacArthur Fellow, one of “Foreign Policy”’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, and elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have the great pleasure and honor of welcoming a guest to the podcast, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt. She is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She’s the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur genius grant. She’s the co-founder and co-director of SPARQ, which is a Stanford center that brings together researchers and practitioners to address significant problems.

Jennifer has focused her work on bias. She has a ground-breaking new book called Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. It is her personal journey to understanding how bias works in the brain and how racial bias, particularly, has developed, beginning at its roots. And then she also talks about how she applies her research in America’s boardrooms and police precincts to come up with constructive solutions to effect change. Thank you again for being here, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Thank you have having me.

Janet Lansbury:  First of all, I just want to say that I was completely blown away by your book. I found it so deeply moving, your journey, all the stories that you shared. I can’t recall learning so much from a single book. The way that you share — your writing was just so eloquent. So thank you for that.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Well, thank you. I mean I appreciate it, for sure. I’m just so happy that it resonated with you.

Janet Lansbury:  It certainly did. For listeners, I think it would be great to start out with talking about the basics: how bias is formed, what its purpose is for us as humans, and how it works.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Sure. So maybe it would be easiest to start with a discussion of categories. Our brains, we create categories to make sense of the world. And those categories allow us to assert some kind of coherence and control of the stimuli that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. So we have categories for everything, for cars and for furniture and for anything that you can think about. We also have categories for people. So our brains are kind of grouping like things together, basically. We do this instinctively by relying on patterns that seem predictable.

But just as the categories that we create can serve as the shorthand and can allow us to make these split second decisions about things, they also reinforce bias. So the very abilities that help us to see the world are the same things that blind us to it.

I study racial bias in particular, and racial bias is a force that’s so powerful that it can influence everything from who teachers discipline in school to who’s hired and promoted in the workplace. In the criminal justice system, it can affect everything from who cops see as suspicious on the streets to who jurors are going to sentence to die in prison.

So I’m looking at, in my book and in my work, I look at how bias works and how racial disparities can create bias as well. So bias can lead to disparities, like in the criminal justice system, in our schools, in our workplaces. But simply witnessing those disparities, taking in those disparities in those spaces, can reinforce bias. So there’s a two-way or bi-directional relationship here.

Janet Lansbury:  So it’s like a cycle that-

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  It is.

Janet Lansbury:  … one creates the other and then that reinforces the other.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  So what can we do to disrupt this? Are there things that we can do to help ourselves to recognize our own biases, be more aware of them, and change them?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  I can give you examples of ways in which people have disrupted bias in their own spaces. One example would be with teachers. I’ve done work showing that teachers will discipline Black middle school students much more harshly than white students for the same repeated infractions. That’s because teachers are thinking about those repeated infractions for Black students as being: one is tied to the other. They see it as a pattern of misbehavior that needs to be shut down. They see it as indicative of that child, when that child is Black, being a troublemaker.

But for white students, they don’t see one instance of misbehavior as connected to the other. So they don’t make the overarching judgment about a white child who misbehaves, or at least not to the same degree or in the same way. So we see this. Even we see this for Black children who are different children. One Black child misbehaves, for example, and then a different Black child misbehaves. A teacher might respond to that second Black student as though he’s misbehaved twice. So it’s almost like the sins of one child can get piled onto the other.

But we don’t see teachers doing that so much for white students. They think about white students as being individuals. So what one white child does has absolutely nothing to do with what another white child does.

We’ve done this work. So we were thinking about, well, what could disrupt that? How could we arm teachers in a way where it doesn’t trigger bias and where they’re not contributing to these racial disparities in terms of discipline? One of the co-authors on the paper in the research I just described, his name is Jason Okonofua. He was looking at empathy as a way for disrupting this.

What he did was help teachers to reframe why it is that they were disciplining students, and then also what it was that caused children to misbehave, so to kind of broaden their focus to think about not just the misbehavior in the moment, but to think about what was producing that misbehavior. The teachers learned about the whole issue of mistrust in school settings. They learned about what that child’s worries were: their worries of being treated unfairly or treated differently because of their race and all of that. And then those teachers were taught how to think about discipline in a way that would draw the child into the classroom, rather than pushing them further away.

So they thought about when they needed to discipline a child, to do that in a way that kind of showed care for the child rather than, again, pushing him out of the classroom. They found that by just using that simple technique and kind of changing the mindset of teachers, they were able to cut the suspension rate in half.

Janet Lansbury:  Wow. Part of that is that you gave them a way to see children that they were lumping into a group in their minds as more likely to have problems and to misbehave… you helped them to see them as individuals that each have their own issues and own reasons for behaving the way that they do, and their own sensitivities. You allowed them to poke holes in the group mentality.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  And then also poke holes in the narrative about that group. Because there’s a way in which people … So say that Black children in that context are disproportionately misbehaving, but even in that case, you can think about, well, why is that the case? What is it about this context that’s producing that? Rather than simply looking at the children as troublemakers or looking at the children as the source of the problem. So I think that’s how we need to think about bias as well, more generally. It’s just not that people are biased or not. There’s something about the context that we’re in that could trigger a bias.

As that bias gets triggered, it can influence the decisions we make and it can influence the actions that we take.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. In your book you talked about that one was speed — that when we don’t have a lot of time to make a decision, that’s when we tend to fall back on bias. Also, stress level, right?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. Both of those. I’ve looked at this, actually, in the policing context along with some colleagues at Stanford. We went in and we worked with the police department on how to reduce the number of stops they were making of people who were not committing any serious crimes. We did that by slowing officers down. So before each and every stop they made, we had them ask themselves a question and that was, “Is this stop intelligence-led? Yes or no.” By that, they meant just do I have credible evidence to tie this particular person to a specific crime? So just asking themselves that question, just pausing, add that friction there changed their mindset.

It also changed what they did. So we found that with the addition of this simple question at the time they were making the decision whether to stop someone or not, we found that it reduced the number of African American stops by over 43%.

Janet Lansbury: Wow.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Simply adding that pause.

Janet Lansbury:  And giving them some specifics to slow down their process.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Exactly. So, to slow down, but you’re also encouraging them to use objective standards rather than subjective standards to make a decision. You’re not going on intuition, which would be subjective. But we’re forcing them to think about using evidence of criminal wrongdoing to make the decision. So you’re pushing them to be more objective.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s so wonderful.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  You could think, “Well, what does that mean for me? I’m not a police officer and stopping people and making these decisions.” But I think the take-home point is that you can disrupt your own bias by slowing down, by calming down, by asking yourselves the right question, and then by holding yourselves accountable. So it’s the same principles involved, whether you’re a police officer or whether you’re a parent.

Janet Lansbury:  What would that look like for a parent, do you think? Are there any examples you could think of to help parents understand that?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. Well, one of the examples I start the book out with is when I was on an airplane with my son who was just five years old at the time. He was just really excited about being on this plane with Mommy. He’s looking all around and he’s checking everybody out. He sees this man and he points at him and he says, “Hey. That guy looks like Daddy.” And then I look at the guy and he doesn’t look anything at all like my husband, nothing at all. Then at that point, I realized that this man was the only Black man on the plane. So I used that to have this discussion with my son about how not all Black people look alike.

But before I could have that discussion, my son he looks up at me and he says, “I hope that man doesn’t rob the plane.”

I said, “What? What did you say?”

He said that again. He said, “Well, I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”

I said, “Well, why would you say that? You know Daddy wouldn’t rob a plane.”

He says, “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

I said, “Well, why would you say that?”

He looked at me with this really sad face and he said, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.”

So this is an example of how we’re living with such severe racial stratification that even a five-year-old can tell us what’s supposed to happen next. Even with no evil doer, even with no explicit hatred, this association between Blackness and crime had entered the mind of my five-year-old. And it enters the minds of all of our children and into all of us.

So the issue there in how to disrupt that is talking to our children, asking, “How did you get that thought? Why are you thinking that? Why did you come to that conclusion?” And helping them to interrogate their own mind so that you can make the unconscious associations, these implicit associations that they’re developing even as children. You can make those more explicit so that they can question them.

And then you help them to practice this to the point where they can do that on their own without your assistance. They can think, “Why did I have that thought at this moment?”

I think that’s the first step we have to take towards reducing and mitigating bias. It’s adding friction. It’s slowing down. It’s reflecting on how we got to this decision or that decision, how we decided to take this action and not that action.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. That makes sense. And then also making sure that we’re coming from a place of calm in ourselves when we’re having those discussions with children so that it doesn’t become: You shouldn’t say these things and now I’m judging you. You should be afraid to talk about these things or say what’s on your mind. So that tightrope walk as well.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah, it’s difficult. It’s difficult. I think sometimes parents just decide not to walk that tightrope. They decide it’s better not to even bring up race. There are a lot of parents who have been taught to be colorblind and that that is the way to raise a child. Because the idea is that if you can’t see color, how could you be biased? But the research shows us that when you’re teaching children not to see color, you’re also teaching them not to see the bias that can come from it. You’re teaching them to close their eyes to the discrimination that can come from it. So that’s a real problem.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. You actually did a study on that.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. They did a study on that where they took fourth and fifth graders. They exposed them to this blatant discrimination. So they exposed them to this situation where a child knocks down another child and punches him on the soccer field. They asked, “Well, why did you do that?” And the child says, “I did it because he’s Black and I don’t like Black people or Black people are aggressive or violent. So I hit him before he could hit me,” something like that. For the children who were taught to be colorblind and that that was the way to be a good person, only half of them saw that as an instance of discrimination.

Whereas, when you teach children to actually notice color and to be comfortable in talking about that, the vast majority of them were also able to see that push and that knock-down on the soccer field as an act of racial discrimination. So their eyes were open to that. Whereas, when the child were taught to be colorblind, their eyes were closed to it.

Janet Lansbury:  So we want to teach children that there are different races and people look different. Do we want to teach them that minority populations, that there is historical prejudice against them? At what age do we want children to know that?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. I mean I think that’s a great question. I mean sometimes the intuition is to not have those discussions too soon because you want to preserve the innocence of kids. But I think there’s a way when we don’t have those discussions that we’re sort of exposing them to a lot that they don’t understand and we’re leaving them on their own to grapple with it. I think that Black parents tend to talk to their children earlier about race than white parents.

But even in 2014 when we were having protests across the country about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police, you might remember this was in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a lot of discussion then around race and policing. So I didn’t necessarily want to expose my children to this. They were still in elementary school at the time. The elementary school principal actually asked me to come in to talk to the school about race and policing. I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” That was the last thing I wanted to do. It was a mostly white school. So I knew that a lot of the parents were focused on being colorblind as a way to kind of shield their children from bias. So I was thinking the last thing they wanted was for me to come in and talk about such a heavy and difficult topic with kindergartners even, because it was going to be a whole-school assembly.

What got me to feel okay about going in was that I was taking my kids to school one day and on NPR, they were talking about Baltimore. There were protests going on and there were fires. People were protesting the death of Freddie Gray there. I was listening to it and my kids were in the back seat. I hear this voice from the back seat and it was, “Mommy, Mommy. Why is Baltimore on fire?”

When I heard my child’s voice I thought, “Wow, they’re listening to this story too. They’re hearing the same thing I’m hearing.” It was at that moment I realized when we don’t talk to our children about what’s going on, we do leave them to fend for themselves. They’re having to make sense of all this stuff all on their own. We’re not protecting them by not talking to them. We’re making them more vulnerable, in a way.

So that was the moment that I decided I wanted to go in to the school and talk to kids about race and policing and I was eager to do it. So I went in and I talked to them. I cannot tell you, they were so engaged. Even the kindergartners were raising their hands when I asked questions. Everybody had thoughts on this and they were eager to just get those thoughts out and to have this real discussion about what was going on in our nation right then.

Here we are again as a nation going through the same thing. How many of us are having these discussions with our children about what’s happening right now?

Janet Lansbury:  This is a heavy, heavy time and children are so aware. They don’t understand the specifics. They need help framing this so that they can understand. But they’re totally aware that people are upset, that there’s really scary things going on. It’s even worse, as you said, if we don’t put words to it.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  It is, for sure. I mean it leaves them bewildered. It leaves them confused. It leaves them scared actually.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. Why is this so terrible that no one can even tell me what’s going on?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, your book is so timely. One thing that you say is, “The mistake we all keep making is in thinking that our work is done, that whatever heroic effort we’ve made will keep moving us forward, that whatever progress we’ve seen will keep us from sliding back to burning crosses and hiding Torah scrolls.”

And then you say, “Moving forward requires continued vigilance. It requires us to constantly attend to who we are, how we got that way, and all the selves we have the capacity to be.”

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  That’s right. That’s true, now more than ever, right?

Janet Lansbury:  Now more than ever.

The way that you write the book, you’re sharing your journey of discovery. As I recall, your interest is sort of piqued when you were in middle school, in a mostly white middle school. You had difficulty distinguishing the different girls that were making friends with you. I found that fascinating because I’d really never thought of that happening. But I’ve never been myself in a situation where everyone was of a different race or most people were of a different race than me. So I’ve never had that experience. But I thought it was fascinating and really telling as to the power of the categorization that we do.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah, for sure. I mean up until I was 12 years old I was in an all Black world. This was in Cleveland, Ohio. Everybody was African American in my neighborhood, my school, my teachers, whatever stores I visited. It was just anybody that I had any meaningful relationship with was Black. And then my parents decide we’re going to move to this white suburb when I was going into middle school. I was nervous about moving there because I didn’t know much about the place, but I knew that Black people did not live there. So somehow we were going to live there and so I was nervous about how I would be treated and received and so forth.

I get there and the students were super nice and they were welcoming and all of that. But I still had problems making friends because I could not tell their faces apart initially. I was confused by that and it was like, “What’s going on with my brain? How come I can’t tell one person from the other?” It was really because I had not been exposed to white people, white faces, on a daily basis. So my brain didn’t have practice at learning how to sort those faces and individuate those faces. So it took me some time.

Over time, obviously I was able to tell one white face from another, but at that time my brain had no practice at it. So I had a tough time doing it, which means I had a tough time making friends because I couldn’t tell who I had talked to the day before. I couldn’t tell who was my friend and who wasn’t almost. So it was a difficult period. But it did wake me up to race and just really deepened my interest in racial issues, everything from how my brain was working at the time to looking at the difference in resources in that community versus my old one. It was just a really wealthy community and all of that. It seemed to be very much aligned with race, how much resources one neighborhood had versus another. So that experience piqued my interest in race and inequality.

Janet Lansbury:  But then later when you were in college… or was it in graduate school when you really started to focus your studies and research on bias?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. I actually did neuroimaging studies on this whole idea we’re talking about, what’s called actually the other-race effect. It’s just the fact that people are better at recognizing faces of their own race than they are faces of other races. With a number of colleagues at Stanford, we conducted the first neuroimaging study looking at this in the brain and we found evidence for this that the area of the brain called the fusiform face area is implicated in face processing. We found that that area was activated less for faces of races other than our own.

So the thing that I experienced at 12, we were seeing evidence at this neural level for how it plays out in our heads.

Janet Lansbury:  Is that because we just decide I’m not going to put more energy into this other because I feel like, I don’t know, I already have an understanding of it. Or I don’t need to have an understanding of it or what is that?

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Some of it is just sheer exposure, but then you also realize that, okay, if you’re seeing faces of other races, maybe you won’t even feel the need to practice, to really try to sort through those faces because they mean less to you, maybe because you’re interacting with them less. So it’s both the exposure and then it’s also what our own experience requires of us and then even our attitudes about people who are outside of the group that we’re mostly attending to.

It’s interesting, too, because I think a lot of times people think about something like racial segregation that, okay, people are segregated in these different neighborhoods. There’s a whole history to that. Our government actually played a big role in enforcing that racial segregation. So sometimes people will think about segregation just in terms of policy or sometimes they think about segregation just in terms of preferences and things. But what we’re seeing is that segregation, actually, it’s more than policy and preference. It’s actually something that shapes how our brains function.

So you could take a policy or a practice or whatever it is, a preference, and then it actually can influence how your neurons fire in your brain.  So it shapes us. Our environment, our social environment, it sort of shapes us in a very deep way, in a way that oftentimes we don’t appreciate.

Janet Lansbury:  So that’s why in the early years, hopefully, we can influence preschools or communities to create more diversity for that reason alone, that in these formative years, if we want to try to disrupt bias in its most formative time, then having preschool experiences… If the parent doesn’t have friends or people in their community, at least making that a priority for preschool, if possible.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  And even preschoolers can pick up our own bias as parents. So that’s another issue. They’ve done research on this as well where you have preschoolers watching an adult being treated badly by another adult. That adult is scowling and they’re leaning away from this person. They’re talking to that person in a cold tone. You ask children whether they want to be around this adult and whether they like this adult and they take on the bias that they see by the adult.

So in this case, one adult who was being treated negatively and another adult who was being treated positively. So they were leaning into that adult and talking in a warm tone of voice and sharing toys with the adult and so forth.

They found that 75% of the children when asked who they preferred, they preferred that adult who was being treated well. This was just a 30-second video clip of watching this treatment and already preschoolers had seen enough to know that it was the target of bias that was responsible for the bias rather than the holder of bias. So they took on the same kind of attitude and stance towards the one who was treated poorly.

Janet Lansbury:  Wow.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  It happens so early. I mean, think about this. Preschoolers are picking this up and determining who’s a good person, who’s a bad person. I have another son who, when he was a first grader he came to me and he asked me if I thought that Black people and white people were seen differently and kind of treated differently.

I said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean.”

He says, “I don’t know.” He said, “I just feel like there’s something different.”

I asked him. I said, “Well, why don’t you think about it and think about when you last felt that way?”

So he was thinking and thinking.

And then he says, “Hey, we were in the grocery store the other day and remember there was a Black guy that came in?” This was in a mostly white neighborhood and so there weren’t a lot of Black men who went in that store. So he was saying, “Yeah, remember he came in and it was like people kind of stayed away from him a little bit. It was like he had a giant force field around him.”

My son was really into Star Wars then as a first grader and so he was describing this in this way.

And then he says, “Yeah. When the guy got in line, I noticed that his was the shortest line because people didn’t want to get near him.”

And then I said, “Well, what do you think it is?”

He says, “I don’t know.” He was thinking about it and thinking about it. Then he looked at me and he said, “I think it’s fear.”

I thought, “Wow.” It’s a first grader picking up on this feeling, this sentiment, not from anything I said, nothing that the people said in the store. It was all about how they were moving through space.

That’s what kids do. They attend to those kinds of things and they’re trying to figure out what correlates with what. Who is regarded in what way? He was able to pick up on this idea of fear simply from watching how we are moving through this space.

So as a parent, it was just astonishing how he could come to that as a child and with such clarity about it.

Janet: Wow.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  People oftentimes will say, “It’s from the media. Kids pick up on bias.” But it’s also from us. We are transmitting that kind of sentiment and those signals to our children even when we’re not aware of it.

Janet Lansbury:  You’re right. I mean, sure, media has effects, but nothing like the effect of the parents that they’re in relationship with and the parents that they look to for: Am I safe? Am I comfortable? Or the other people around them.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. The parents help them to interpret what they see. They can put a frame on it. I think that framing is really important for children. They need that. Otherwise, especially how we’re raised in American culture to think that people get what they get and they make their choices and all of that. The structural forces that kind of keep people where they are, children are completely blind to that. So they need help. If they see that there’s certain people who occupy the lower rungs of society, I mean children will just look at that and think, “Well, okay. That’s who those people are or that’s where they belong.” I’m saying they need our help in comprehending what’s going on around them and helping them to make sense of it, right?

Janet Lansbury:  Right. They come from this open place of trust. Like you said, it’s if these people are being treated this way, they must deserve it because my parent wouldn’t do anything bad or wouldn’t be wrong. So there must be a reason.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Right. It’s like that study we were talking about with the preschoolers. If you’re treated bad, you are bad. That’s the conclusion that would be drawn there.

Janet Lansbury:  It’s a powerful enemy, this bias thing. As you’ve said, it’s so unconscious.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. It’s like how do we fight an enemy that we can’t see? It’s hard, but it’s not something that we’re incapable of. I think that means talking to our children, rather than shielding them from issues of race. It means helping them to be racially literate, rather than not talking about it, because then they don’t have the language. So then they grow up in these situations where it’s hard to even have a conversation about race and you’re even more terrified to have that conversation because you’re so ill-equipped to do it. So we want to, I think, equip our children early.

It’s not like when you don’t talk about it, they’re not seeing it. It’s not like when you don’t talk about it, you really are shielding them from it.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes, that’s a really, really good point.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  I’m working now with some people at Stanford where we’re actually conducting a study looking at how often Black and white parents talk to their children about race and inequality. We’re also looking at what those conversations sound like. We’re looking at when those conversations begin. So yeah, I think this is something that people are hungry for now, especially now given all of the polarization and the racial strife that we’re facing now.

Janet Lansbury:  They definitely are. There are wonderful resources coming out in children’s books and wonderful ways to make these conversations come up easier for parents that aren’t sure. But as you said, more than exposing them to books, it’s those experiences. It’s what they’re feeling that’s most important to help them learn and process. Because what can happen is, and I can relate to this myself from being a child, is that you’re sensing something’s going on. The adults that you look to to help you process the world, they’re not talking about it.

So you feel alone. You feel maybe scared, maybe ashamed that you are seeing things that you’re not supposed to see or sensing things you’re not supposed to sense. So this whole process that could be so healthy is getting repressed. I feel like, as a white person, I could say that’s something that we really need help with. You also said in your book how white people get fight-or-flight when talking about race when they’re in mixed race company. I think that’s where it stems from.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Yeah. You don’t have the words to talk about it. And then when you don’t have the words, you worry that a word that you use could be taken in the wrong way and you could be labeled a racist. So you feel like it’s better not to have the conversation.

So it just kind of leaves us in a difficult spot where we’re not equipped almost to address the things that are tearing us apart. I’ve been talking to you more as a researcher, but I’m also a parent myself. I’m a Black parent. I have three boys and the youngest now is 16 and witnessing them move from being seen as children to being treated as the objects of fear has been really difficult for me.

I think it’s difficult for a lot of Black mothers. When one of my sons when he was just 16 years old he had already discovered that when many people looked at him that they felt fear. I just remember having a conversation about it. He would say, “Elevators are the worst.” That was because when the doors closed, people are trapped in this tiny space with someone that they have been taught to associate with danger. My son would sort of sense their discomfort and he would smile and he would talk to them to try to put them at ease. I just remember hearing this and thinking my child was a natural extrovert just like his father.

But in that moment, I realized that his smile was not an invitation to would-be friends. It really was a survival skill. It was the skill that he had honed under these conditions. He had honed this skill over thousands of elevator rides.

The irony of all that was that nearly 100 years ago, the Tulsa race massacre began with a Black teenager accidentally stepping on the foot of a white woman as he entered the elevator. So she screamed and rumors spread that there was a Black teenage boy who had sexually assaulted her. This is in Tulsa, so the area known as Black Wall Street was destroyed. Over 1000 Black homes were burned to the ground. And then they rounded up thousands of Black people and placed them under armed guard.

All of this was just with one misstep. So this is our history, my sons, and there are people in this country who are still struggling with that history.

Janet Lansbury:  That reminds me of what I was feeling when I was reading your book. You share this really fascinating story about how you’ve delved deeper and deeper into the roots of the dehumanization of Black people. And all the mixed feelings that this must have brought up for you. The whole time I’m feeling, oh my goodness, your bravery, your courage.

And then you shared how you were a teacher at San Quentin with inmates. And that was a very, very moving story, all that you shared about that. When this student in San Quentin commented to you, he said, “I appreciate you, I really do. But I don’t know how you do it. We need this work, but how are you able to carry those facts? That’s some heavy stuff you just shared.”

So I just, as a mother, as a person, that’s why I told you when I wrote to you that you are a hero to me.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Wow. I don’t know if I deserve that kind of honor. It’s people like you and lots of people now in this moment that gives me hope. It’s easier to do work on this as well when you feel like it’s work that can be heard and it’s work that will resonate and it’s work that will make a difference in the world. So I get my courage and I get my strength from meeting people like you and talking to people like you who really care and who want to make a difference and people who want to use their platform, or whatever it is that they have, to actually help people to grapple with these issues and to help make this a better society. So my hat is off to you.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you. Well, I hope that everybody reads your book. You delve into a lot of darkness. It’s very depressing in parts, I’ve got to say, and sad and just devastating really. But then you bring this hope and you bring these solutions and ideas. It is very hopeful and it is, I dare to say, exciting, and much needed.

I’m just going to share one other little quote here from you where you say that, “Bias is operating on a kind of cosmic level, connecting factors and conditions that we must individually make an effort to comprehend and control and it deserves a cosmic response with everyone onboard.”

That’s my hope, too, that we can make change together. I mean, that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  You’re right. We all have agency here. There’s something every person can do in this fight. So thank you for being in the fight.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you so much, Jennifer.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt:  Thank you.

Jennifer’s book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do is available HERE.

And both of my books are available on audio, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations