The Cycle
updated 3/14/2013 8:20:16 PM ET 2013-03-15T00:20:16

Everyone is biased. But what if we could harness our prejudices, understand them, and push back against the anxiety that comes with conversations about race or gender?

Everyone’s a little bit biased.

But Alexis McGill Johnson of the American Values Institute thinks that by identifying and understanding our biases, we can rid ourselves of the emotion and anxiety that often come with them.

Johnson spoke to The Cycle hosts about racial anxiety on Thursday, describing the need to bridge the automatically triggered “defense mechanisms” to get to a point where substantive policy discussions can flourish and not be hindered by undercurrents of racial tension.

Watch to hear more about Johnson’s implicit bias test. You can also check out the website,, and take the bias test.

Video: How our bodies react to racial differences

  1. Closed captioning of: How our bodies react to racial differences

    >>> millions of people have done this. my colleagues took it and they were getting questions about race. i have questions, do you associate this with hair or no hair? it tell me the conclusion after i took this, your data suggests no automatic identification with vehicle compared to furniture. i assume that's a code that says you're not a racist, congratulations. what did i get? what happened to me?

    >> what you got is that you headed off to the site for experts rather than the site for novices.

    >> in other words, steve took the wrong test. you may remember a few weeks ago when we had harvard professor on to talk about her implicit bias test. her research shows that like it or not, we are a you will a little bit biased. once you establish that, the next step is to use that bias to help push into the anxiety and emotion that surrounds these. that's the mission of the woman joining us now. the executive director of the american values institute. thanks so much for joining us.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> let's start there. if we are all in fact a little bit biased, do we need to be more comfortable admitting that and about it?

    >> well, i think that's the biggest challenge that we have will we all know what happens, when we have conversations around race, and it kind of just drops in the conversation and our defense mechanisms automatically get triggered. i think the challenge around that is that we cannot have any meaningful policy discussions about jobs, about education, about just about who our children's friends are if we cannot address a meaningful conversation around race and the emotion that it brings with it.

    >> i was struck by the coach from the new york time a week ago wrote about how we think of racism. he said in modern america, we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. people can be good law-abiding citizens and just happen to be that they have attitudes embedded somewhere that basically are racist. but they don't understand them them don't acknowledge them or recognize them. they think the racists are some terrible people over there. what's your experience with that? do you find that to be true?

    >> absolutely. when you look at poll after poll, upwards of 85% of americans really truly do believe in egalitarian ideals. and i wouldn't question that. and i think that our conscious selves are very fair-minded. you look at that across a variety of issue areas. whether we talk about race, sexuality or gender. the challenge is that we hold these unconscious biases. we've internalized the stereo types. and i think race tends to happen in a structural and an historical narrative . the reality is that race is an emotion, too. it triggers these defense mechanisms and that's what we need to address.

    >> alexis, our young men have a lot to navigate as they move from tweens into teenagers. they start to get saddled with that stereo type of the criminal back man. to be looked at as predators, people to be feared. let's look at a little clip from a documentary that your group is associated with.

    >> keep asking me. i always say in the middle burk they keep saying, are you rich? are you poor? are you rich? are you poor?

    >> i think for the first time since he's been there, this black and white thing has become an issue.

    >> anything black now seems to have a negative tone.

    >> for a while, he came back. when he first got there, he wanted his name changed.

    >> well, i sometimes get made fun of. because they said you talk like a white boy and stuff at my basketball team .

    >> people seem to be afraid of me. and so what they do is they back off and they don't want to mess. because they think i might hurt them.

    >> he said to be feared is your most prized possession as a king.

    >> that works well for kings but not for black boys walking through streets every day. it is heart breaking to hear these boys who are going to dalton talk about, they have teachers who are afraid of them. probably for no reason. this is a problem that our boys are dealing with. we can tell them, you know, do things to not make yourself look so much like whatever that will make other people afraid. the larger world is looking at them as criminals even when they do nothing. how do we deal with these ill police it biases that are shaping our boys?

    >> i think the american promise film is actually a really important documentary. particularly to address that question. we tend to associate race and particularly race and gender, black men, with criminality. we think of it as a class issue. the reality is when we looking people up to mris and respiratory monitors and we flash images of young black plenty in front of them, you can trace the anxiety growing in our body. there's a part of your brain that increases and that red wing sisters fearful your heart rate increases. that means that when the image of a black man coming down the street, regardless of how he is dressed, pops into our head, we're automatically creating a narrative and a stereo type around them. so we have to challenge our, essentially we have to challenge our media. we have to challenge our visual cult tower give us different counter stereo types to get our brain to process race differently.

    >> well. yeah. you talk about the stress that is created when race is discussed and sort of anxiety around those conversations of we don't often know how to talk about it. you have people who disengage. don't want to ever bring it up. that's not helpful for a national dialogue. you have others trying to intimidate people. sort of invoke it in sort of a scary way. so what are some tips? some advice for how to have a meaningful conversation about race?

    >> well, one of the things we're trying to do there our new website, is create that conversation where we acknowledge both sides of the conversation. i think typically what happens is that if you are a white american , you enter a conversation around race. you're literally your executive brain sometimes will shut down. your defense mechanism kicks in. and you are so worried about confirming the fact that you understand that you hold these biases deep down. for many people of coloring entering this conversation, we're likewise bringing a defense mechanism . we're worried that our situation is going to get invalidated. i think it starts in naming the anxiety. it is like race therapy in some ways.

    >> to own up to it. will ha thank you.

    >>> up next, the twisted story our executive producer and millions of you apparently can't stop watching. the jodi arias trial.


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