“Being Different Together”

Yesterday evening, seven of us from the UU Church of Palo Alto attended “Being Different Together,” a community forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.

Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor of the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Brown, a social psychologist who studies implicit bias, who currently works at Stanford University as the Graduate Diversity Recruitment Officer for the School of Humanities and Sciences and Associate Director for the Diversity & First-Gen Office. Dr. Brown’s doctoral research looked at how stereotypes and prejudice impacted minorities and women. Brown studied with Claude Steele, a social scientist who did research in stereotype threat, among other topics.

Brown said his goal was to find a way to talk about “getting into a more just community.” He said one way to do this is by using the concept of “microaggressions.” He acknowledged that the concept of “microaggression” as it has been popularized is controversial. But he approaches this from a social science perspective, where “microaggression” has been carefully defined and studied.

After asking audience members to give brief examples of a microaggression they had experienced, Brown drew out commonalities between these examples. He pointed out that it may not necessarily be clear what exactly is driving the behavior of the person committing the microaggression. But for the person experiencing the microaggression, while there is often some uncertainty, it tends to feel like the behavior was, in fact, driven by negative stereotypes. Brown said, “When we’re considering the impact of microagressions, we have to consider the … ambiguity of the microaggression.”

In Brown’s research, he has found that negative stereotypes are widely distributed, and nearly everyone in our society is likely to be familiar with common negative stereotypes. Social scientists have found that these common negative stereotypes do affect us, and “help us resolve ambiguity.” Social scientists further find that negative stereotypes influence us in ways we’re largely unaware of.

Social scientists also find that microaggressions “distract us.” When you experience microaggressions, you have to devote energy towards them. Thus they tax our “emotional control resources.” Because of this, microaggressions are “threatening” and “disturbing,” to such an extent that you cannot ignore them.

The experience of microaggressions has a number of results. Those who experience microaggressions find that their trust in local institutions, and their trust in individual people is undermined. Experiencing microsaggressions also leads to increased stress and distress.

“I wouldn’t want to argue that overt prejudice drives microagressions,” Brown said. “That simply isn’t true.” Social norms in out society have changed in the past few decades, and overt prejudice no longer socially acceptable.

Taking a historical perspective on negative stereotyping, Brown said that when there wasn’t an expectation of full inclusion, then someone who was the target of negative stereotypes had different, lower, expectations. But now that social norms have changed, we all expect full inclusion. This expectation of full inclusion means that microaggressions undermine the sense that we are valued fully included members of our communities.

“Now we’ve all experienced microaggressions,” said Brown, “and we’ve all been microaggressors.” Since this is the case, then those committing microaggressions are also potential allies in creating a more inclusive and just society.

“A useful concept is the concept of cultural humility,” Brown said. But cultural humility is different from the better known notion of cultural competence. According to Brown, cultural competency can “morph” into an unfortunate state of mind where someone thinks, “I’ve taken these classes, I’ve read all these books, I’m done, I’m no longer a part of the problem.”

On the other hand, if our goal is cultural humility, that will necessarily mean that each of us is always in an ongoing process of learning about other members of our community. Cultural humility also implies that we know we’re going to have to continue to be vulnerable, and we also know that we will make mistakes. “You never reach the end of the process” with cultural humility.

Courage is a key trait of someone with cultural humility: the courage to be willing to speak up, to make mistakes, to learn, to have difficult and painful conversations.

Brown concluded by saying that he never thought we would never have a black president of the United States during his lifetime. “We now have a black president,” he said. But there is still work to be done to create a more just and inclusive society. “Our next progress is going to be much more personal.”


Following Joseph Brown’s talk, Kaloma Smith posed a series of questions to the panelists assembled by the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission. The panelists included Jade Chao, Board of Managers of the Palo Alto YMCA; Rev. Dr. Diana Gibson, Adjunct Professor, Santa Clara University; Amy Lazarus, CEO of InclusionVentures; Delorme McKee-Stovall, Director of the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations; and Stephanie Rabiner, Senior Fair Housing Coordinator at Project Sentinel.

Smith’s first question to the panel was: What resources do the panelists recommend to help in addressing implicit bias?

McKee-Stovall suggested taking the online Implicit Association Test, to discover something about your unacknowledged biases. [See note below.]

Brown recommended the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, designers of the Implicit Association Test. He also pointed to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, who offer resources on this topic.

Several of the panelists said the most important resources are personal, and interpersonal. “Start with yourself,” said McKee-Stovall. Rabiner named “acceptance” as a key resource. Brown said that implicit biases are “likely to affect your perceptions,” so it is important to put into place processes that can counteract those biases.

Chao made the point that we should look for resources that are already in the community, and start by using what’s currently in place. “There’s no reason to reinvent anything,” she said. (This, by the way, is a counterintuitive notion in Silicon Valley, where businesses and nonprofits are constantly reinventing the wheel.)

Smith’s second question to the panel: What do you do if you’re on the receiving end of implicit bias, how do you react? What if you’re the person who commits the bias, how do you react? How can we move from a tense dialogue to a healthy dialogue?

McKee-Stovall said, “One must be courageous to share with another person when you have been impacted by implicit bias.” Society tells us to “get over it,” and it takes courage to “step out of that” expectation, and “in the moment to say to another person who has targeted you, intentionally or or not, to tell the person” what you are experiencing. “It’s important that you engage in that conversation in a kind of confidential space,” she said, because if this becomes a wider conversation that includes more people, it may not go as well. She also reminded the audience: “There’s no expectation that we’re going to be inoculated, [implicit bias] is not going to go away.”

Rabiner added, “I keep going back to acceptance, to the idea that we’re not perfect.”

Chao spoke about how to get children involved in this work. “If we can get to our kids early enough,” she said, this will help. She pointed to the YMCA’s Project Cornerstone, based on the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Model, as a way to help children get involved.

Smith’s next question to the panel: What should a bystander do if they witness a microaggression?

Brown said, “Bystanders can have a very powerful impact” by validating the feelings of the person who received the microaggression. He suggested that bystanders can say to the person committing the microaggression something like, “I know you didn’t intend it this way, but what I heard was —, and it is possible that so-and-so might have heard it in the same way.” Brown advocated moving beyond tolerance, to acceptance, adding, “It goes back to this idea of cultural humility.”

McKee-Stovall pointed out that sometimes when you are a bystander, your primary task is to “take care of” the person who experienced the microaggression. “Sometimes it’s not the time to confront the person who’s the aggressor,” she said, adding that the top priority might be giving “comfort.” “Microaggressions happen all the time to the target, and if you can stand with them in compassion, it also gives them courage,” she said. “The isolation is the thing that is most painful…. People need allies so badly these days…. We have to start seeing ourselves as a collective, as a community.”

Gibson added, “Don’t be a bystander, be an ally.” From her perspective as an ordained Presbyterian minister, every person is made in the image of God, and you don’t want to stand by if that — a part of God, a part of something sacred — is being trampled.

The community forum concluded promptly at 9 p.m., but I found myself staying and talking with other participants for more than half an hour. I usually go to these community meetings on racism expecting the worst — presentations that wind up shaming people, too many angry remarks from participants, and little real communication — but this community meeting was nothing like that. Joseph Brown’s keynote was just about the best presentation I’ve heard on the topic of implicit bias, and all the panelists offered genuine and concrete ideas for making a positive difference. I give a lot of the credit for the success of the meeting to Kaloma Smith, a very skilled communicator and facilitator of open, honest conversation — would that every community in the United States could have one or two ministers like this.


Note about my experience with the Implicit Association Test:

While acknowledging the strong social science behind the Implicit Association Test, I have my reservations about it. The test indicated that I have a “moderate” positive association for blacks, which I have serious doubts about; sorry, but I’m not that enlightened. I know I had cognitive issues taking the test — I tend to mix up my right hand and left hand when under stress or heavy cognitive load — which meant I had to go quite slowly, which probably affected my results. Another cognitive issue: I have poor facial recognition skills, which meant, e.g., that it took me a while to figure out that one of the people wasn’t actually black (they looked Ethiopian to me), but was white. Yeah, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to facial recognition.

I suspect my results were also affected by my growing-up years in the Boston area, where there is a good deal of negative stereotyping about different white ethnic groups (Yankees, Italians, Irish, Portuguese, French Canadians, etc.). None of the photos of white people used in the Implicit Association Test looked like they belonged in my small subset of white people; they were all Other. Upon reflection, I think that may have affected how I navigated the test.

In any case, I’m self-aware enough to know that I have plenty of negative stereotypes about black people. Even if my cognitive deficits didn’t affect my test results, what the Implicit Association Test probably found in my case is that I happen to have bigger prejudices towards certain white groups (I’ve always felt there was plenty of hatred to go around in the Boston area, so you could lavishly hate every racial and ethnic group).

One thought on ““Being Different Together””

  1. I loved this article, Daniel, so much so that I shared it on a UU FB group that was recently experiencing much tension due to microagression. And then I shared it on the FB page I run for my UU church. Your blog post, and your wonderful description of this term and its implications should be a required reading for we UUs who tend to feel enlightened and above all prejudices but in reality probably have just as many, if not more, than everyone else. Great read!

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