How much does groupthink contribute to implicit bias?

This sounds like the title for an academic paper, doesn’t it? Heh. Maybe I should work my way into academia and write thoughtful, philosophical papers on the human condition. Yeah … no. That’s not me. Not in the least.

I may not be model material for academia, but I do think a great deal about the human condition. Maybe too much. In fact, my husband would agree that I think too much. He’s told me that on several occasions. My reaction is that I’ve got a brain and brains do best when used and I use mine to think. Thus, I am using my brain – exercising it, if you’d like, in much the same way people go to step class. /nod When they cut me open, they’ll find my brain limber and beautifully muscle-toned. I am rambling …

While putting sheets and towels in the washing machine, loading the dishwasher, and making breakfast (including gloriously stand-the-spoon-up-in-it coffee) this morning, it occurred to me that maybe part of what we’re seeing with this categorical denial of racial bias and the perpetuation of systems that exhibit racial bias is less about systems theory (although I am sure there is plenty of that), and plenty to do with groupthink. How else can you justify an entire police department participating in behaviour that is as reprehensible as confiscating a “bike of a 54-year-old black man because he didn’t have a receipt proving that it belonged to him”?

Yes. I am aware that my linked article is from a well-known progressive site. Based on how articles are written, it’s pretty obvious that if they were going to be classified on one or another side of the political spectrum, they would necessarily fall centre of left. I don’t care. This isn’t about politics. I’m apolitical, remember?

It doesn’t matter who you are, when you look at the big picture, one cannot deny that there does seem to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports a pattern of racial bias. And I am not calling anyone a racist. I can’t do that. I don’t have enough info about anyone. Besides, I don’t want to. Being called a racist is horrible. Ugh. I can’t even begin to imagine …

I am a big picture person. I tend to see the overall view rather than the detailed individualised view. I don’t know where that came from. I can’t trace back to any particular event or lesson in my life. I just tend to look at things from a broader perspective than most people I’ve met. It’s a curse sometimes because it makes me deny myself things I want “for the greater good”. Bah. Hate that shit. Sometimes I wish I could be selfish. I don’t think I know how. But I digress …

The big picture shows that there is something going on. There has to be. And here’s what I think it is: groupthink. Know what that is? It’s that shit that happens when you’re with a group of people and you’re all having a grand old time and one person says “we should go get a few brews” and someone else goes “yeah! great idea. let’s do that” and a few more people nod and smile and agree (you never notice that some of this agreement is kind of lacklustre, like they’d rather not) and before you know it, you’re thinking “I may as well go too cos if I don’t they’ll think I’m a snob or something”. That’s groupthink … a rather simplified version, but still exemplary.

I am perfectly able to envision a situation where a seasoned policeman says he thinks that dude stole the bicycle he’s on, and his rookie partner accepts that because experience is valued highly in law enforcement. And before you know it, an entire police department is going along with it because “cop instincts”.

I am not ridiculing cop instincts. Far from it. It’s kept my own husband alive more than once. Cop instincts tend to be good ones. They deal with all kinds of people all day long, every day, for years; decades. You kinda get a feel for how people think after a while. “Cop instincts” saves lives.

I wonder if you can spot the point of failure in my scenario, though. Can you? I’ll wait.

It’s the seasoned policeman. He’s got this little bias thing going on in his head. He probably doesn’t even realise it. It’s been there for all his life, ever since that old granduncle of his told him that there was something inherently bad about black people. He doesn’t consciously think there is something bad about black people and he certainly would not be one to say it out loud, even if he had doubts about it. Hell, maybe he even had a run in or two with a black guy once who stole bikes constantly and who stood out in his memory for some reason. Nothing wrong with that at all. Perfectly understandable. “Cop instincts” – right? They might have kept him safe from that good-for-nothing-bike-thief way back before now. Except, that memory, that instinct made him target someone entirely different without any obvious reason and his experience and respected “cop instincts” made everyone else support him.

It’s important to remember that I’m not blaming our seasoned policeman for anything. I’m not saying he’s a bad person or a bad policeman. I’m not even saying that anything should be done to him as a result. Hell, I’d probably have sided with him too were I his partner.

No; the effects of psychological phenomena such as groupthink isn’t something we can always see or even prevent. It happens even when we don’t even realise it – like that bloody night out with the boys drinking when you really would have preferred to just go home and binge-watch Dexter on Netflix.

What’s the solution? I dunno. Do you have any ideas? Cos all I do is think of causes and effects, dude. I haven’t quite gotten to solutions yet. I may need help there. I think my strengths are more seeing “what is and why”, rather than the creation of the “how it should be”. Hell, how can we build a “what should be” when human nature consistently and relentlessly sabotages every attempt, anyway?

Seriously. All I am asking is that we can at least admit that something is wrong and that maybe we need to take a closer look at the shit we do, say, and think before we go off half-cocked. Yeah? How’s that sound?

What depression really is … from someone who knows.

The other day I wrote a phrase/quote and posted it on my respective social media timelines. It got some attention because of the really apt imagery it evoked. But I wanted to talk about it more, because this is a thing most people don’t understand and probably one of the most often miscategorised afflictions of all time.

Here’s what I wrote:

Depression is like trying to climb up a muddy hillside. There’s no place to grip & you keep falling face down in sucking, cold mud.

I had to condense it down to less than 140 characters so it’d fit on Twitter too. But the whole thought as it initially started out was this:

It feels like trying to climb up a steep, muddy hillside. There’s no where to put your hands and feet and you keep falling back down into the muck and you’re covered head to toe in sticky, sucking, cold mud.

I thought it was some pretty powerful imagery. Cold, muddy, mucky, the inability to be really comfortable with yourself and your surroundings for no reason that you can discern. Furthermore, there is so very little you can do until you find the help you need. In this imagery, a ladder or a rope or simply a helping hand would work great …  if only you could get your hand on it.

The worst part about depression is that somehow you find yourself thinking you deserve to be sitting in that bloody mud. It’s pretty irrational, but something about how you view your life up to that point tells you that being in that mud is all the result of every decision you ever made up to that point and thus a perfectly justifiable position to be in.

Some of us are able to keep trying until we get out and those people think, “Well, if I can do it, anyone can.” Which is kind of a cop-out on empathy. There is no natural or unnatural law anywhere that makes us all the same and capable of the same things at the same levels of competence. You may think I am just as smart as you are and thus able to accomplish the same things, but that isn’t true. We are individual people capable of different things. And being depressed – chronically now, not just feeling blue today – means we just want to lay down in that mud and say, “I’ll try again tomorrow … maybe” because it is truly exhausting have to keep trying to climb out day in, day out.


Trevor Noah is slated to be the new Daily Show host, yeah.

I have this feeling that it’s all a big April Fool’s Joke and that Jon is going to tell us in a week or two that it was all a big joke and Trevor is just simply joining their staff as a regular “correspondent”. I don’t know why that is. All I know that after watching his routine on Netflix, that surreality is a bit stronger. Why? Let me tell you …

Two things struck me as I watched him: (1) that he seemed very uncomfortable in front of the audience; almost amateurish and inexperienced; and (2) that his routine seems overly obsessed with race in America. That he is inexperienced is probably true. His Wikipedia page states that he’s met with considerable success in other countries but that he is still quite new on the US circuit. That feeling of inexperience is likely to smooth out over the course of time as he gets a feel of what US audiences like and don’t like.

There has been much controversy surrounding his being named Jon successor. At first it was all about the fat jokes and the Jew jokes; and now there are those atheist jokes. And they all seem to have fallen so hard they fell through several floors before falling flat … assuming they were jokes at all. I notice that the first horror at his Twitter timeline was over the fat jokes and Jew jokes and the fact that he could make such ambiguous statements (because we still aren’t sure they are not jokes) about a marginalised group. It took a whole 2 days before I saw that the atheists also have bones to pick with him over statements made in the wake of Christopher Hitchens passing that were also ambiguously offensive (because those are also supposed to be jokes too although one wonders … but I digress). Atheists are also a marginalised group, but that they were left out of the initial outrage speaks volumes about our individual perspectives. I wonder how many other groups have been targeted by his so-called jokes but went unnoticed because those groups are so invisible that no one notices when they are being targeted?

Perspective is a hell of an equaliser. Take his race-centric routine. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a reference to how the US has traditionally handled race issues and what impact those ways have on his experiences here. He is from South Africa where race has always been a high stakes issue. He was born into a racial divide that personifies racism. In spite of his experiences at home in South Africa, the issue of race in the US is very confusing to him and he works it out in his comedy routine. The thing is, US Americans claim that this is a post-racial society. But those of us coming from outside think that is the most oblivious statement ever. The US is more embroiled in racial issues than they ever have been because now the racism is no longer obvious and on the individual “you stay over there” level. It’s in the system and the tiny little biases no one is even aware they have until they call an 18 year old man a demon (and sometimes even then they don’t realise it).

If nothing else, Noah will be good for this so-called “post-racial” society because he can shine some light into places most US Americans don’t even know exist. It’s the same place I find myself in. They say you never see yourself more clearly than when someone tells you how you look. (I don’t know who said that. I just pulled that out of my ass. It sounded good at the time. Sue me.) Noah and others like him bring a perspective that the US ought to welcome. Even if you don’t see his perspective as being unquestionably neutral, you can at least see it as bringing contrasts to a situation that has too long been seen in insular ways.

And to those who wonder whether he can be trusted with our national media spotlight, I say he will be good for some issues. His thoughts and opinions on fat people, or Jews, or religious/irreligious may be controversial, but we can’t expect him to be perfect. And he will be very good for the discussion on race – which is a discussion that still needs to happen. Maybe even more so than the fat, Jew, religious ones because those are already happening. The one on race isn’t. At least not in ways that it needs to.


Accents, the effects of migration, and the concept of “twanging”

I so often hear sentiments like, “Oh, but your accent is so mild/strong/faint/nonexistent”. My best friend teases me because I sound “so foreign now”. I’ve been told that I sound like I am “twanging” to impress people. (Note: there is no dictionary definition for what “twang” means to Jamaicans – it is essentially a horribly, awful sound of someone attempting to sound foreign.) And then I listen to people who have lived away from Jamaica for years … decades. And they all sound as if they’d not left the island … ever. And that sometimes makes me feel like the sellout I think a lot of people think of me as. I’m not; and I am going to explain why it is I “sound so foreign already”.

You see, the thing is, most of us, when speaking to people who share cultural imagery and language with us, speak really fast and in shortcuts. When I talk to my husband, or my best friend, or people who are Jamaican, I use the word “thing” a lot, for example. In fact, one of the funniest moments I remember from when a former close friend told stories about her schooling in the US was with that word. Jamaicans (used to?) have this habit of saying, “Aaaaaaahmmm…. ting deh” (and it sounds exactly like how you might imagine it – long and drawled). This friend regaled us with a funny story of how she walked up to a student who was from the US and went, “Aaaaaaahmmm … ting deh …” and got such an odd look that everyone broke up laughing because … well, what the hell does that even mean? To a Jamaican, it simply means that you are trying to say something (a name or reference to some obscure event or person or fact) and you can’t quite remember what it is, so you fill the silence with sounds.

If we dissect our everyday speech, we’d realise very quickly how many assumptions about the other person’s knowledge we make. That was never brought closer to home to me than when I married into the military. Hubby and I talk about PCSing (PCS = Permanent Change of Station; the military process of being reassigned and moved to a new military installation) all the time. I’ve said it to my best friend no less than 5 times in the last 8 years. But every single time I say it, I have to explain what that means because it is so alien to him. Which is fine … it’s expected … it’s normal. And it exemplifies that cultural nuance that we often ignore when we talk within our respective cultures.

I guess on some subliminal level I have always been aware of cultural and sub-cultural differences when talking to people. As a result, I end up doing everything I know how to do to ease that cross-cultural interaction so that each person gets the least amount of friction in that interaction, the end result hopefully being that the content is memorable and not so much the people or the mechanics.

Does that make sense?

Lemme try again…

I try to talk to you in a way that I know you will find little to no difficulty understanding me so that we aren’t caught up in who we are and focus, instead, on the what of the conversation. What that boils down to for me moving to the US and “suddenly sounding so foreign” is that to you, my fellow yaadies, I sound like a sellout but to everyone else outside of Jamaica, I sound … understandable. And to you, my new US family, I simply sound like I’ve been here for a while and “lost my accent” because I don’t sound like any other Jamaican you’ve ever spoken to.

Don’t get me wrong … sounding Jamaican is something I wish I could do all the time. This is evidenced by the fact that now that my husband is a bit better attuned to Jamaican accents and words I now speak more like a Jamaican when with him. I am pedantic, however, and I’d rather get on to the next milepost in the conversation than spend double time explaining what I just said because you didn’t understand clearly because I spoke too fast/used a word you don’t know/made a reference to something you have no knowledge of (side note: ” … because … because …” ugh – inner grammar nerd screaming in agony).

In the end, think of my “accent” as just me being typical introvert me wanting to get to the substance as quickly as possible so we can all get on with our day. :)

Ideally, it would be culturally enriching to spend time explaining those differences in an edifying way but those opportunities don’t often present themselves and when circumstances don’t allow for that, we have to focus on the what rather than the who. Know what I mean?

How Stereotypes hurt us, from a personal perspective

If you’re like me, in any of the smallest of ways, you’ve chafed at the bit that is stereotypical roles for all your life. I struggled long and hard as a child with statements such as “you should focus on behaving like a lady” and “but you should wear (read:like) pink; pink is for girls” and “frills are just so pretty, I don’t know why you don’t like them – you’re a girl” and “but patent shoes are so formal and show class”.

Embarrassingly, I thought long and hard (obsessively in some instances) about things like why boys stand up to urinate and why girls must sit. I will even admit to experimenting a little with the reversal of that concept. We won’t get into the details… let’s just say the results were hilarious in retrospect, if humiliating at the time. Chalk it up to youthful ignorance of human anatomy. When I learned more about how our bodies are built, I heard the gong go off in my head on the why of that particular fact. Some of our “norms” are as a result of biology – case in point. A ton others, though, are not. Like how long we keep our hair or what colours we wear. Those things are dictated by society, not biology.

Something someone very dear to me said to me recently got me thinking. There are so many ways in which we produce cookie-cutter children and we are not even remotely aware of those ways. Why? Because it is what we were taught growing up (much in the same way I was), and we saw how it went for those who were socialised in ways other than the “norms” of society. Shunned, ridiculed, abused, discarded. Better to be “normal”, isn’t it?

But I have to ask you this: how does that feel, that “normal”? Does it feel comfy to be in your “normal” skin? And just for a second, I want to ask you to set aside that “but I wouldn’t fit in” feeling and really think about how it feels to be “normal”.

And here’s the thing: some of you will tell me it feels perfectly fine. That’s the thing about stereotypes. They actually do fit some people. The hurtful part is when it doesn’t. We can’t all be the same. And we shouldn’t have to be. I am firm advocate for allowing people to grow into the kind of people they want to be instead of the kind of people society says they should be. And the way to do that is to stop insisting that they stick to the “norms” that society dictates. A 3 year old boy can most definitely have long hair and wear pink if he wants to. Objections to either of those are society talking, not biology. We have to remember that.

I applaud the trashing of gender stereotypes because I have never been comfortable with the “typical girl” one at all. And I think it hurt me far more than it needed to be forced into pink frilly dresses and socks with patent leather shoes and bows in my hair. It hurt because I was uncomfortable and we often associate discomfort with other items. For example, church became a consistently bad thing growing up because it was when Mom forced me into pink, frilly dresses and socks with patent leather shoes. That’s harmful – no matter what you think of church and religion. A child’s recollection of church should not be as a result of how he or she was dressed.

Do me a favour – please. The next time you think “Oh but that’s not very masculine/feminine” stop for a moment and ask yourself whether whatever it is you are criticising is a biological dictate (like urinating standing up), or societal (long hair and pink for a boy). And if it is societal, acknowledge that the reasons why you want to change them is not because it’s wrong, but because you are concerned about them being shunned, ridiculed, abused, discarded. Then allow them to experiment and choose and hope they realise that society can be unforgiving on their own before it is too late. Perhaps, like me, they’ll realise that to be vastly different is to draw unwanted attention to their lives. Or perhaps they’ll say “to hell with it – I will be who I want to be” and chart the course for new lands.

Remember, some of our most loved heroes and creative geniuses were far from “normal”. Maybe that is what it takes to succeed – the courage (or crazy) to challenge the status quo. Maybe that’s what we need to change the world we live in. Allow those harmful stereotypes to die the miserable, lonely death they deserve.

Pondering the nuances of the terms cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation

On the heels of viewing and participating in a discussion about dreadlocks, I am pondering the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation … there is a difference.  According to Wikipedia, the terms refer to the same kind of activity but appropriation tends to have a negative connotation while assimilation tends to be a more neutral term.  Which is a little ironic … because The Borg.

So anyway, this post started out as a Facebook status update … and then it kind of ballooned out of control. In fact, after I finished typing the *bleuraak* of words that were in my head, I cut and paste the wall of text into my blog post editor and noted that the word count was up to 450 words. Whoa … right? I know. I didn’t even think I could still write blog posts like this, it’s been so long … but I digress.

So my pondering is because of my reaction to the aforementioned discussion about deadlocks. I would do it a disservice by trying to summarise the discussion, and I can’t really link to it here since it was in a private group, and I certainly can’t copy and paste the words either because that would just be unethical. Suffice to say that the discussion started on the basis of opinions and stereotyping associated with dreadlocks; but then it descended into a judgement rant about people because of how their locks looked. I thought it was ironic the the initial discussion topic was posed based on the judgement the original poster thought people with dreadlocks endure but that there was judgement about different people and their locks too. Basically, it sounded to me like “the world should never judge us dreadlocked persons, but some dreadlocked persons are just in it for the looks and that’s just bad”.

Now, the history of deadlocks has its roots in Africa. As a cultural expression, it “belongs” to Africans and those of African descent. Popularised by the late Bob Marley, it is now more closely associated with the Rastafarian faith. I should note here that the original poster found it useful to say something to the tune of “most Africans are doing it wrong”. If anyone is doing it “right”, I’d say it’s them. His whole rant was … startling. Now, I am not disparaging this young man at all. He was speaking most vehemently based on the information he had. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet and I can’t fault him for falling prey to some of it. In fact, I remain strangely unemotional about the whole exchange. But it did set me to thinking…

Should I be angry that someone from a culture other than my own is telling me about my culture in authoritative ways? I am not. I am … simply pondering a world in which this happens so regularly that we can’t even recognise it.

At what point is it ok to take on the practices, ideas, traditions of another culture and discuss it in terms that imply you claim it as your own?

We study Tai Chi in several different styles (Yang style, Chen stye, Dong style, etc.). I found the Dong style groups here on the West Coast recently and learned their style is fashioned off of Yang style Tai Chi. It’s not cultural appropriation for Master Dong to form his own school, but is it appropriation for us in the West to form our own schools under his tutelage and claim the schools as our own?

I don’t know where the line is. It never bothered me before – mostly because I see the world differently and I don’t much care that white people are locking their hair. I can lay claim to the dreadlocks culture because I was born and raised in the culture that fostered Rastafarianism. But it doesn’t make me angry that people who don’t look like me are taking it on as their own expression. I don’t know that I can explain why either … other than to say I have never felt oppressed by anyone and so I don’t feel the need to be seen and respected as part of a culture or people or society. Thus I cannot relate to the anger that appropriation causes. I don’t discount it… and in fact, it is that very anger that I am pondering today. At what point _do_ we get angry?

I mean … maybe it should be ok to borrow something from someone else when it works for you. But is it ok to tell someone they’ve been doing it wrong for centuries and now that you are doing it, you can explain the right way to do it? Maybe that’s ok too – because the heavens know how much humanity has gotten stuff wrong over the centuries.

Maybe this “owning” of a culture is restrictive, selfish, short-sighted … archaic. Maybe in this new global world that we live, it is time to let go of that idea that “our culture” is ideally better when that includes everyone. A conglomeration. And speak of sub-cultures or pocket cultures instead. I can get behind that – sure!

But what of those cultures that have been marginalised as sub-standard and inferior for centuries? Do we tell them “Look – we effed up when we said you’re a sub-species. We know it now and we want to make amends. But let’s all share your bounty in the meantime. I mean … I said sorry, didn’t I?”


Here’s the tricky thing about granting equality and recognition after centuries of side-lining and marginalisation: when the oppressor recognises their wrong-doing, acknowledges it, and apologises for it, they don’t get to dictate the point at which time can move again. It’s like when you apologise to your husband or wife for betraying them over and over and over and over again …  and they demand some time to think … and heal. Healing takes time and the one who was wounded has every right to say, “Ok. Thanks. Now step back and let me heal … and leave me alone while I do it – thanks.”

To get back to my original point, here’s how I think about appropriation: Sure go ahead and express yourself with whatever you choose, even if it is a form of expression that belongs to some other culture. Be my guest. Chances are, the reason why that thing is so well liked is because it’s pretty magnificent to begin with and its why it is still a part of whatever culture to this day.

Dreadlocks, for instance. We think it’s pretty fabulous and if you think so too, fantastic – we have something in common. But please be careful how you then take it upon yourself to tell us that we’re doing it wrong. We’ve (us and our ancestors) been doing it for centuries and I think that by now we’d have ironed out the kinks. Unless, of course, you’re trying to say that we aren’t capable of working out the kinks ourselves?

Heh … I guess I wasn’t as unemotional as I thought I was, eh?

The point is – borrow, borrow all you want. Just be sure to be respectful while you do it – m’k? And remember that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Think about it.

That relationship between emotion and strength …

I think we tend to forget or ignore how important emotion is.

Some of us are able give into emotion easily, but a lot of us work hard to quell our emotions; mostly because we think that emotions make us weak. The irony is that most of us have no difficulty giving in to our anger, but when it comes to grief and loss and the sadness that accompanies it, we just don’t.

Thankfully, there are people (sometimes, luckily, in leadership positions) who understand how important it is feel. I attended a memorial service recently in which the officiant displayed an astute understanding of emotion and its role in the grieving process. I was touched at how he led the gathering through the grief, cried with them, and then led them out again into the joy of remembrance.

He started his address with funny anecdotes about how he’d met the deceased and how she made him feel as a brand new addition to the community. He moved on into a couple other remembrances of her with her family and the impact it had on him. He introduced a tear-jerker of a song next, dedicated to the family. He made sure to tell us that, “It’s ok if you want to cry. I probably will and I think I’m just going to sit right here while it plays because if I stand up here I likely will lose it”. And he did leave the podium to sit in a chair nearby while the song played.

We listened to a sweet song of love and remembrance and loss and we all cried – every last one of us. Even the officiant. There was not a dry eye in the gathering. Even the officiant was red-faced and crying. I was stunned because this was clearly a man comfortable enough to cry amongst strangers. How many of us can lay claim to that? I know I can’t.

After the song was finished, he launched into a 10 minute long remembrance that had us all laughing and nodding and grinning away. The woman who had passed was beloved and there were far more merry moments than there were heartache and he made us realise and remember that in a very visceral way. It’s an experience that will stay with me for a long, long time.

This preacher understands grief. He understands loss. And he understands that together they involve both tears and laughter, and that both are important in the grieving process. He played to those two expressions of emotion beautifully with his speech; by the time he was done, we had cried and we had laughed with equal vigour. And we felt better for it.

That experience taught me something. I think we need to spend more time allowing ourselves to sit with emotion. If you’ve ever been overcome by emotion, if you’ve ever cried like your heart was breaking, then you know how much better you can feel when the grief has passed. Better, lighter, stronger. There is no doubt … we are stronger when we let ourselves feel.