In roughly mid-2015, I started receiving calls on my cell phone for someone by the name of Rita. These calls (sometimes recorded, sometimes from a real live person) came mostly from higher education institutions. I’ve had my cell phone at the same number since 2007 and never received a call for anyone named Rita before. Now, suddenly, eight years later, I found myself answering these odd calls, often several times per day.
After a few days and a few questions I found out that someone by the name of Rita had recently entered my phone number into a web form requesting more information about higher learning opportunities, one of those forms that feeds the leads list for multiple institutions, everything from accredited universities all the way down to the lowest of bogus online scams. My next realization, I could do nothing to rectify the situation (other than asking each individual institution to take me off their contact list), left me thoroughly annoyed.
The calls continued, dying down for a while around the holidays and the early part of 2016, but have cropped up again in the past several months. I have thought of changing my number, but so far the annoyance of that outweighs the annoyance of the calls themselves, which I’ve mostly figured out how to avoid answering.
I tell you my tale of woe, not for sympathy’s sake, but because, through and odd twist of the Universe’s sense of humor and my growing awareness, I’ve learned something very important from it, something that only dawned on me in the last few weeks (something beyond a cautionary warning to be exceptionally careful about entering correct phone numbers into online forms). What I’ve actually discovered, very surprisingly, has nothing to do with Rita herself (whoever she it) and everything to do with the prejudice still lurking in my own subconscious.
You see, over time, I came to have an image of dear Rita in my mind. What did I know factually about her? Rita wanted to know more about higher education opportunities (under-educated, perhaps?) and Rita had screwed up and “fat fingered” the phone number she’d entered into the form requesting that information (careless? sloppy? non-detail-oriented?) And guess what color I imagined Rita’s skin to be? You guessed it. In my imaginings of Rita, she was a black woman.
So what?, you may say. An image in my mind about a woman I don’t know hurts no one, you might think. But actually, it does. In fact, it points to a very troubling tendency within myself of which I’m, now, newly aware. Because on a conscious level, I can be as anti-racist as I want. I can post and repost all the Black Lives Matter material on my Facebook page and advocate for people of color and vote for candidates supporting systemic change in this country to better the lives of diverse communities all freakin’ day long. But apparently, ask my subconscious to serve up an image of a person I’ve deemed under-educated and prone to careless mistakes, and good ol’ subconscious paints a person of color to stand for those characteristics. Wow! Ouch! Scary!
But while I may feel it’s ouchy and scary for me, the people who really stand to suffer from my latent racist tendencies (as well as similar tendencies in other white people) are, of course, the very people targeted by them. How can it actually hurt them? Well, the door to the subconscious swings both ways you see. If I ask my subconscious to serve up an image of “under-educated, careless woman” and it’s most “optimized search result” is the face of a black woman, that means when I see a real, live black woman (especially one I don’t know personally), I’m also subconsciously ascribing those negative characteristics to her. Until now, I didn’t realize I was doing it, but my subconscious has proven this unequivocally true about me.
Have I ever talked over a black woman, because subconsciously I suspected I knew more than she? In the wake of this discovery, I have to guess that I have. What if I’d ever worked for TSA before realizing this? Would I have assumed the bags packed by black women more likely held prohibited items and required more thorough screening? With a subconscious labeling all black women this way, probably so. What if I’d been an insurance agent? Would I have been one of the many taking part in the recently uncovered practice of charging higher car insurance premiums to people of color (considering I was unconsciously labeling them all as careless)? Would I have passed this bias onto my two white sons who may someday hold jobs that affect the futures of black women in their generation? More than likely, yes, and that’s perhaps the scariest of these what-if scenarios.
This is one tiny piece of information about the racism that still lurks in the recesses of my mind. What other falsehoods continue to abide there? This is not a poor me piece, but a piece about empowerment. Beliefs tucked in the subconscious don’t change overnight, but with mindfulness and determination, we can rewrite them over time. I have work to do on myself. Every time I see an African American woman (again, especially one I don’t know), I need to consciously remind myself that I don’t know her aptitudes, that she may be extremely well educated, intelligent and detail-oriented, or some of these things, or not, but that the color of her skin has NOTHING to do with whether she possesses these characteristics.
If you believe, as I do, that these things don’t happen by accident, you’ll see the divine perfection in the circumstances that led me to stumble upon this information. Of all the possibilities, the person who incorrectly entered my number into that online form had the name Rita, a moniker that could have easily belonged to a woman of several different races. It just makes what I’ve learned from all this that much more undeniable.
I’m pretty sure some people in my social circles (especially quite a few acquaintances I don’t often speak with in person) have written me off as a “Black Lives Matter whacko.” Nothing will stop me from promoting awareness about our country’s shortcomings when it comes to caring for people of all races, even if I can do little to change their minds,. But my own mind, that I can continue to change, and I have every intention of doing so.