Tracey Benson
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One of my earliest memories of elementary school is sitting at the lunch table, telling stories with my friends. Now, if you know anything about eight-year-old boys, the rule behind telling stories is not that it has to necessarily be true, it just has to be exciting. And the more dangerous, the better. So my friends would tell stories of how they almost got eaten by a bear while camping in the park or how they almost got hit by a big truck on their street while riding their bike. And one story had to always one-up the next in terms of how exciting it was. One story that was told most often that I can remember - it was told at length - it featured one particular character: the big black guy. Whether it was the big black guy who turned around and told us to stop kicking his seat at the movie theater or the big black guy who we saw suspiciously walking down our neighborhood street, just using the term "big black guy" was meant to send a message of fear and imminent danger. I remember sitting at the lunch table, looking with big eyes at my white friends who told these stories and hoping that I would never meet this big black guy. Now, mind you, back at home, my father was a big black guy. (Laughter) My uncles were big black guys. But I never thought to make the connection between the big black guys my friends were talking about and the black men that I knew from my neighborhood. In my mind, the big black guys that they were talking about were these big - it was a big, you know, Incredible Hulk-looking big black guy that was mean and growled at people, but surely not the big black guys I knew. But I did get a chance to meet my first big black guy. In 2003, I was 25 years old, back in balmy Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in December, shopping with my two-year-old son. If you've ever shopped with a two-year-old, you know it's a very exquisite experience. So five minutes in, he decided he's done with this. Let's play a game of hide-and-seek in the department store, where he would go and hide and I'd spend my shopping time looking for him. And so we're on our third round of hide-and-go-seek, and unbeknownst to me, a little white boy had joined the game because he saw my son hiding in clothes and wanted to join in. And so I'm looking for him. I'm looking and looking - I finally spy his head over the top of a rack of slacks. So I go walking over, creeping over - very quietly, of course. I hear him chatting with somebody. I'm like, "He's not talking to himself." But lo and behold, he's talking to another kid who had joined the game. And so I make my way over, and I finally look over the top, and I go, "Ha ha! I found you!" And he looks up, he laughs and screams. And the little white boy looks up, but he doesn't laugh - but he does scream. (Laughter) Then he starts crying, and he runs out of the rack of slacks over to his mother, who was more no more than a few feet away, and grabs onto her leg and starts crying. My son looks up at me, I look down at him, and we both go, "I don't know what's wrong." So we both look back over to the mother and her son, and the mother says, "What's wrong?" The little boy looks up at her, tears in his eyes, looks over at me, and then he points, and he says, "That big black guy scared me." So I know I've been a relatively large black guy since high school, so this wasn't surprising. But I'd never been somebody's big black guy. So here I was, an elementary school teacher at the time, innocently shopping in a department store with my two-year-old son for Christmas gifts. But to this little boy, I was his big black guy. So where does this idea of the big black guy come from? How is it that a little five-year-old knows its reference? Well, it may come from our history. What we know in this country is that from 1619 until 1865, black people were actually not considered to be people in this country. We were considered to be property - property subject to forced labor, torture, rape, and even legalized murder. And actually, it was not until 1964 - just 55 years ago - were black people considered to be full citizens of this country with full voting rights. So for 350 years, from 1619 until 1964, black people were considered to be uneducated, savage big black men and big black women. So does this history inform how we operate today? Better yet, how does it inform how we operate today? There were two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who did an experiment in 1940 with a group of five-year-olds. What they did is they brought together a small group of five-year-olds, half black and half white. They took them one by one and asked them which doll they would like to play with, and they presented them with a white doll and a black doll. And what they found is that overwhelmingly, regardless of the race of the child, they chose to play with the white doll. And then when asked to describe the characteristics of the dolls, they overwhelmingly described the white doll as looking nice and the black doll as looking bad and ugly. There was another study performed in 2016 - 75 years after the doll study - about employment. And what these researchers found is that when an employer can identify a resume as belonging to a black person, they are 15% less likely to call the applicant back for a job interview. Two studies in 2017 and 2018 studied law enforcement. And what these studies found is that police officers are more likely to stop, ticket, and search the car if the driver is black. And in one of our most trusted professions, medicine, researchers found, even amongst doctors who took a survey that said they do not consciously have any racial bias - even among these doctors - they were more likely to underdiagnose and prescribe pain medication less often to black patients. Now why is it - even after the outline of legalized racial oppression - why do these patterns continue in our society? Well, what research shows - and we probably intuitively know - parents who harbor racial biases tend to pass them on to their children, if not explicitly, then implicitly. So, for example, if a parent enters an elevator with their child and a person from a different race enters and a parent gets nervous or shows signs of being stressed, the child picks up on those signals. If a parent only keeps a social group of one race, children learn who the preferred race is, who are my people. And if a parent refuses to or just simply does not talk about race or racism in the household, children learn that this is a taboo topic. So these racial biases form not logically but intuitively. We also know we live in a highly segregated society, where we all don't necessarily get information about other races from interpersonal contact, but we get more of that information through news media outlets, through movies, through television shows. And in these media outlets, we see what? Happy families. We see fun-loving dog owners. We see people driving expensive cars. And the majority of these images are of white people. In fact, whiteness is so normalized in our society, you actually have to go to special places to see a majority of people of color, places like Black Entertainment Television, Telemundo. And even in our greeting cards section, we have a special section for Mahogany, where you can find black people. So with all this inundation of racial imagery over the course of a lifetime, it's actually impossible for any of us, even me, to not form racial biases in our society. So I ask you: who is your big black man? Is it the belief that black neighborhoods are dangerous, teeming with unwed mothers and deadbeat fathers? Is it the belief that brown people from Central America are coming here to take our jobs? Is it the belief that Asian Americans are taking the seats in all of our top colleges? Is it the belief that Muslims hate everything American? Now, these might not be your particular beliefs, but I'm sure we can all agree this is within the American consciousness - these thoughts as well as other racialized imagery. So if we know these things exist and we can all agree about that, why is it so hard for us to talk about just like we would talk about anything else? Why is it so tough? Why is it so difficult? Well, scholar Robin DiAngelo and I postulate that it's because of the binary, specifically, the good-non-racist, bad-racist binary, where over here, you have the bad racist who's prejudiced, bigoted, hateful, mal-intentioned, racist, and over here, way over here, is the good racist - good non-racist, I'm sorry - the good non-racist who's well-intentioned, liberal, and most of all, not racist. And there's really no space in-between. You're either this or that. And when we're in mixed-race settings, we are so pulled - unless you're an espoused and proud racist and in that category - but if you're not, most of us want to be seen as the good non-racist. And we spend so much time - especially in mixed-race settings - being this good non-racist that we say the right thing, and we do the right thing, we espouse our commitment to being a non-racist. We do all of this so much and so often that we miss the point. And the point is we all harbor racial biases. Once we can come to that understanding that all of us harbor these, we can then ask the tough questions. The tough questions are how these biases may negatively impact others. How do we learn to believe that black neighborhoods are dangerous? And how does this then inform our actions about, possibly, where we live, who we hire, where we send our kids to school, who we promote, even on the college campus, who we work with in small groups? These are all decisions we make that may not solely be based in race, but race has something to do with it, and it can negatively impact others. The reason I use the word "impact" is because intention is off the table. We are all good non-racists; we are good-intentioned, well-intentioned people. But if we have racial bias, we need to investigate how they negatively impact others. And so if we can agree that we have racial biases and we want to do something about it, then what do we do? So having been an educator for almost 20 years, I'm going to start with talking to my people - educators, teachers, school leaders, and aspiring educators. If we do not address racial biases in our schools, know that it's living, it's well, and it's infecting the very students we're seeking to serve. So I'll give you the picture - this example. There's a classroom, regardless of the level - elementary, middle, high school, college - you have two students, one student who's white, one student who's of color. And you have a teacher or professor who's acting on their racial biases, where they're calling on raised white hands more than the hands of students of color, where they're asking higher-level questions to the white students more than the students of color, where they are punishing behaviors in students of color that they wouldn't punish in white students. You might say, if this happens every once in a while, it's no big deal - people make their mistakes. But if this behavior goes unchecked, realize this could happen every single day, multiple times a day, and over the course of a year - 180 days if you go by the school calendar - all the while sending the message to students of color that you are less than and you are to be treated as less than and teaching the white students that you have privilege and that you should practice these racialized actions towards the students of color just as I have. Again, not rationally but intuitively. So what I recommend to my fellow educators, especially teachers and professors who teach students, is that we actually write down and monitor who we call on, to look for - not if, but how our racial biases show up in our classrooms. Write down the consequences that we give the students and look at it from a racial lens; examine our practice to look for racial biases. School leaders can help with this. Having been a principal, I know that on observation forms, there's not a section for equity. So we have to make our own section so we can look for these biases when we go into classrooms so we can help teachers improve our practice. Now for us in the room, for those of us who aren't educators teaching in the classroom but are still professionals in the world - what can we do? What can we do within the week, within the day? What can we do? Well, first, we can educate ourselves. There are a lot of great scholars who have dedicated their life to working on issues of race and racism. Scholars like Glenn Singleton, Joy DeGruy, Dr. Eddie Moore, Robin DiAngelo, Tim Wise, Peggy McIntosh. You might recognize some of these names I just shared with you. But first, educate ourselves. But that's not enough. We need to then start the conversation within our circle of influence, among our social circles and within our family. Because it's one thing to remain silent and impassive and let racial bias continue to grip our society - I'm sure we could see lots of examples of that today. But it's far another thing to be courageous and break that silence and possibly make this society a little bit more safe - not from the big black man but for big black men. Thank you. (Applause)