Think you're not prejudiced? A new forum on implicit biases sponsored by Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission might test that premise.
The commission hopes to raise awareness of how unrecognized or subconscious assumptions color understanding, actions and decisions made every day, even among the most accepting members of Palo Alto's community.
The forum, "Being Different Together -- Experiencing Palo Alto, perception and reality," will take place on March 30, 7-9 p.m., at Mitchell Park Community Center, and it is free.
The forum's goal is not to point fingers of blame, but, rather, to help free people of assumptions, subcommittee member and Commissioner Valerie Stinger said. The outcome, hopefully, will bring a new awareness that will enrich the community by encouraging understanding, she said.
The speakers include Rabbi Emeritus Sheldon Lewis, Kol Emeth; Jade Chao, a Palo Alto Family YMCA director; Rev. Dr. Diana Gibson, adjunct professor, University of Santa Clara and cofounder of Multifaith Voices for Peace & Justice; Amy Lazarus, CEO of Inclusion Ventures; Delorme McKee-Stovall, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations; and Stephanie Rabiner, Project Sentinel senior fair-housing coordinator. They will share what has inspired them and the resources and strategies they have used to uncover implicit biases, she said.
Stinger said she hopes that attendees will come away with practical and tangible tools to address biases in social and business situations. Taking her inspiration from poet Gary Snyder, Stinger said that from his writings she learned that without biological diversity, plant and animal communities do not thrive and can even collapse. So, too, with human communities, she said.
"As a community, we are stronger if we appreciate the strengths of a diverse community. I'm really optimistic. I really think we can deliver to the community a program that they can appreciate and enjoy and benefit from," she said.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Brown, is the associate director of the Diversity & First Gen Office at Stanford University and an expert in implicit bias. University A.M.E. Zion Church Pastor Kaloma Smith will moderate the panel of community leaders.
Implicit bias is defined as positive and negative attitudes and stereotypes that affect understanding and behaviors and are activated involuntarily without one's awareness or intention. Such bias resides deep within an individual and is different from conscious biases, which a person might choose to keep hidden for social reasons, according to Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
Implicit biases can have real and profoundly harmful impacts, resulting in differential health care, for example. According to the Institute, a 2012 study used identical case vignettes to examine how pediatricians' implicit racial attitudes affected treatment for four common conditions. As pediatricians' pro-white biases increased, they were more likely to prescribe painkillers to those children as opposed to black patients, the study found.
Other studies revealed that persons with Afrocentric features, such as dark skin or a wide nose and full lips, received harsher criminal sentences for similar crimes than persons without those characteristics. Whites and blacks who had those facial features were treated to the same bias and harsh sentencing, studies found, the Institute noted.
Stinger, who spearheaded the organization of the forum, said that she became acutely aware of implicit bias in Palo Alto after attending a forum held by Pastor Smith at University A.M.E. Zion Church in July 2015. Smith convened the forum after the Charleston, South Carolina, killings of nine African American church members by a white supremacist. There, Stinger said she heard many people discuss their experiences with prejudice and overt and implicit bias.
"There's something raw there, an undercurrent," she said.
She tested her theory at her book club. Everyone said they had no biases and no prejudices.
"But as the discussion opens up, each person surfaced a story of implicit bias that they had done themselves. If we raise awareness, we can be a little bit better about how we treat our neighbors," she said.
Stinger attended a talk by actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who charged her audience to do something to change society. But doing something big, such as altering the educational system, is too big for one person, Stinger said. So she decided to look at what she could do as an individual, and that meant acting locally.
"At a certain core, we have to get (at) it on our own turf. (Then) the awareness that we develop in our own community will extend beyond it," she said.
The forum subcommittee videotaped people telling their stories of implicit bias, which will be shared at the forum. Stinger said she was struck by the many ways that people in Palo Alto are affected by these biases and stereotypes.
"People are getting served differently in restaurants; people of Muslim faith with a hijab (head covering) are not getting employment opportunities; a woman, a professional, is treated as the nanny when she goes out," she said.
While Palo Alto is fortunate not to experience the overt prejudice that has led to violence in other parts of the country, that perception of acceptance can lead people to a false sense of equality, Stinger said.
"Sometimes that masks unconscious biases, and that still hurts identities," she said.
Stinger has had a long career in diverse communities. In 1999, she left a career in new product planning at Genentech and Syntex to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. She taught business students and worked with a developing artisan business. She has continued to work in developing countries, with weavers in Lesotho; vendors in Sudan; farmers in Malawi, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda; scientists in the former Soviet Union and women entrepreneurs in the Middle East.
One lesson stood out: "How little you need to do to take care of your neighbor. People who had so little in Africa still took care of their neighbors," she said. "It was that caring; the power of one."
Minka van der Zwaag, head of Palo Alto's Office of Human Services and staff liaison to the commission, said the forum is about identifying the desired outcome for the community.
"What is my hope for Palo Alto? What kind of community do I want to live in?" she said. It's a chance "for people to be energized and activated and have very clear ideas about that community."
Take the test
A nonprofit group, Project Implicit, has created a series of tests to help people identify their biases. The information can also help project researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition -- thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a "virtual laboratory" for collecting data on the Internet. The tests can be found at http://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.