Today Starbucks closed all of it’s coffee shops in the morning to train their employees on implicit bias. I want to talk about this too, though I think my tiny blog might get lost in the internet noise. I have friends (mostly white) who are interested in this conversation because it seems to highlight a construct that divides people instead of unites them. Why would we dig around in our experience for negativity? Isn’t the world already negative enough? I was inspired this weekend by John A. Powell’s gentleness in approaching the conversation. I think he’s on to something and I want to run with what he’s given us.
John A. Powell was interviewed by Krista Tippett on her radio show/podcast “On Being” in 2015. You can read the full transcript or listen to it HERE. He spoke about the basic human need of belonging. “The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health. And if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.” This resonated with me deeply 1) because I am a human being and 2) because Circle of Hope, the church of which I am a pastor, believes that belonging is the core of the Good News that Jesus brought us. Belonging to one Body, interconnected and so not alone we are the “anti-alone-ness”, is the destiny of humanity and the fullness of Creation’s purpose. When that dependence on togetherness becomes part of a public conversation, my ears perk up. Dr. Powell had much to say that I think you needed to hear, but I’ll quote just a few paragraphs.
How do we make [belonging] infectious? How do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to sort of organize around anger and hate. And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions, certainly Gandhi, certainly the Reverend Dr. King — and I always remind people he was a reverend. It wasn’t just Dr. King. Even though he came out of a violent revolution — Nelson Mandela — he just — again, I met him personally — he just exuded love. And as you know, he had a chance to leave prison early. He refused to unless it included structuring the country. He actually tried to actually lean into a notion of beloved community. He actually didn’t want the blacks to control or dominate the whites. He wanted to create — so his aspiration — and he’s loved. Even today, he’s loved in South Africa, and he’s loved around the world.
In Circle of Hope we have received this message. We believe in the power of love, or at least we have declared this when we pledged allegiance to Jesus who, as God, is love. The one who died for all was showing us what love was. 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” We have become not only advocates for this new perspective on love, but also demonstrators of it. Circle of Hope is a living experiment designed to prove the power of love. The way John A. Powell speaks, at least in my earbuds, exudes love too. Later in the conversation he makes it clear that he is not a theist, but his attraction to this love pulls him toward its source. He is a co-conspirator with Christ if not yet an avowed participant in Christ’s resurrection life.
Powell’s approach is inherently generous. Gandhi’s, King’s and Mandela’s love as individuals has been deconstructed. Hero worship is not allowed anymore, which is fine, but leaves us with no champions for love, except for Jesus I guess. I like how Powell steps around Mandela’s violent beginnings. Just watch “Invictus” to get some warm feelings for Nelson Mandela (I hope the warm feelings can transcend the fact that newly exposed Morgan Freeman is the actor). Mandela was incredibly creative and persistent in uniting post-apartheid South Africa. No political conflict of which I am aware has been more creatively transformed.
These political titans, Gandhi, King and Mandela, are good to mention because they are well known. They are well known because they changed the world in big ways. But they were successful because they were able to build a movement. This seems obvious but must be said because, today, it seems hard for any of our conversations to coalesce into anything. Every individual has their own opinion and experience which is infinitely valuable. That is a critique and a statement of my truest belief. Yes, every individual is infinitely valuable and their experience matters. This is true because God loves them, but also because I do. I do not have infinite capacity to demonstrate that love to them or to even know them, but I’m following my leader. To have a movement that transforms the environment as much as it needs to be transformed we will need to follow some sub-God level leaders. This will require the generosity that Powell extends to his heroes. It will require enough of us to follow someone who is close enough–someone whom we can get behind enough to make something happen. They will not reflect every one of our beliefs or speak to every one of our experiences, but if we are to harness our belonging to make a world in which we want our children to live then we must go with someone for the sake of a cause.
Starbucks is not an adequate leader and their training today is mostly a publicity stunt in my opinion. But the writing is on the wall, corporations will be the moral leaders of the future. I can lament this even as I accept that far less than optimal future and find brands to buy from which reflect my values (this may be more valuable political action than most people think). If rich people are running the world, and politicians continue to sell themselves for the privilege to unleash corporations on us, then I would like a corporate leader who might do some good. Thus, implicit bias training is border-line good.
But I have friends who think it is far from good. Again, they believe that this emphasis on bias might actually instill in us the negative biases it intends to address. Which came first, the bias or the bias training? John A. Powell spoke about this with Krista Tippett,
It’s sort of unfortunate we call it “bias” because it’s really — implicit means unconscious or not fully conscious. And the reality is everyone has that. That’s the human nature. And what’s in our implicit biases are social. They’re not individual. So in a society where we treat blacks a certain way — and we’ve done this. We looked at 11 million words that most people use over their lifetime. How frequently do you use “black” with negative? And it’s very high. It’s like 40-50 percent of the time. So all the time. That’s what you hearing, that’s what you’re seeing, that’s what you’re hearing. It’s the air that we breathe. You breathe that until you’re an adult, you’re going to have those associations. Whites will have them. Blacks will have them. Latinos will have them. If you have negative associations in a society about women, men will have them and women will have them. But they’re social. So we have negative associations in this society about Muslims. They don’t have those negative associations in Turkey. So those associations are social. So part of it means that we have to look at what those associations are and where they come from. And we can create some prophylactic thing. But ultimately, we need to change the environment itself.
The question is not “Am I biased?”; the question is “Is there bias?” This is a very important distinction for anyone who reacts negatively to the idea of implicit bias training. This part of Krista Tippett and John A. Powell’s conversation comes after a well made case that human beings not only long to belong but they inherently belong. Our togetherness is automatic, not only psychologically but socially. We are connected whether we like it or not, but luckily most of us do. The narrative of separateness is not as strong as we have made it to be. For 1) it breeds loneliness like the plague, but 2) it tries to erase something un-erasable – our brain’s demand for patterns and our heart’s desire to belong. So when we evaluate something at an individual level, no generalization is true.
Some white person might say “I am not biased about black people” which, ironically, is basically a racist thing to say in some company. And now the conversation is about finding the bias that this bias-denier has. That person is not getting with the neo-orthodoxy so they must be against us (the orthodox). John A. Powell steps around this horrible foundation for a conversation by evaluating the environment, not the individual. This is not about you, this is about the environment. And if you discover you have bias, fine, but we all agree there IS bias, and until there isn’t WE have a problem. It’s a very communitarian way to have this conversation. It saves the individual from guilt which often derails the conversation (Guilt is never good motivation to do anything), and it unites us in the WE of which we are a part already and which we all need to become more aware.
I welcome this direction and I think we Christians are especially well suited for it because we are explicitly connected. Our explicit bias is for connection and welcome, whether we actually achieve our desires is up for debate. Nonetheless, we know what we want and what Jesus wants, to be One body in Christ. The earliest description of the church in Acts 2 (shout out to Pentecost, the most underrated Christian Holiday!) says that they shared everything in common. I don’t see why we can’t hold these biases in common too.