Photo by Danette M. Watt
Participants of a Diversity Awareness Partnership program at the YWCA Feb. 11 take part in an exercise in which they were asked what progress means in terms of improving race relations.
ALTON — Whether or not you were raised in an environment that included people of different ethnicities, races and sexual orientation, it would be natural for you to think you aren’t prejudiced.
You would be wrong.
“If you’re human and have a brain, you have stereotypes and biases,” Kenneth Pruitt said. “It’s not a point of guilt, shame or frustration. All the best research says we all have some measurable bias of race.”
Pruitt, director of diversity training at Diversity Awareness Partnership (DAP) in St. Louis, and DAP Youth Programs Manager Sherita Love facilitated an evening of “Talk. Listen. Learn: Dialogue Across Difference” Feb. 11 at the YWCA. DAP began the program in 2014 in response to the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
During a two-hour meeting, Pruitt and Love led 50 people in sometimes painfully honest discussions about race and our misconceptions and perceptions about it. They were invited to present after members of the Alton Community Relations Council attended a similar seminar last year.
Pruitt grew up in a diverse community in Nashville but was surprised with his results on the Implicit Association Test. He encouraged participants to take the test themselves. (Find it at www.implicit.harvard.edu.)
Devised in the 1990s, the test has 15 sections on topics such as race, gender and religion. In the skin tone test, black and European faces are viewed quickly and rated positive or negative based on gut reaction. Test-takers are graded on how much bias they have, ranging from “none/little” to “strong.”
Sherry McCardy, an African-American, took the test while working on her master’s degree and was “disturbed” at the result.
“I didn’t think it would turn out the way it did. The preference was to whites,” she said.
Megan Williams, a member of the Alton Community Relations Council, has taken it more than once and said her scores have changed over time from a strong bias toward European faces to one that is more moderate.
“It’s very telling,” she said.
Pruitt said there is a statistically significant bias against people of color, even for people of color, and that we’re trained to associate darker skin with negativity. The media don’t help when photographs seem to perpetuate negative stereotypes of black men.
“Our biases inform millions of little decisions we make daily that influence our interactions,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt and Love led the group through three exercises. One was a “photo gallery walk.” About two dozen photographs depicting recent scenes from St. Louis unrest and decades-old civil rights events were on display around the room. Participants were asked to review them, then write their reactions on a card. The facilitators shared the comments: “Eye-opening.” “Though all this time has passed, have we really made any progress?” “Heartbreaking that our past and present look the same.”
A final exercise involved dividing the group by race, each taking turns in an inner circle with Love or Pruitt leading a short discussion as members of the outer circle listened. Afterward, everyone converged for a final conversation.
One question asked to both groups was how life has changed since Michael Brown’s death.
“People seem more comfortable with acting out,” said Ellar Duff, a member of the Community Relations Council. “I’ve developed more fear for my sons.”
“Because white people seem to be in the majority, our lives haven’t changed, but I’m more aware of white privilege and want to do something about it,” Margaret Powell said.
But not everyone is on the same level of awareness, Gail Donnelly Bader said.
“I can’t have same conversation with some of my other friends that I can with Andrea (Lamer, YWCA executive director),” she said.
All of the African-Americans had experience with “the talk,” either hearing from a parent or telling their own children and grandchildren how to act and what to do if pulled over by the police.
“My dad taught my brothers how to act if they got stopped,” McCardy said. “I thought then that was a weird conversation, but my husband had the same conversation with my son.”
Alton Police Chief Jason “Jake” Simmons said people needed to talk to each other as humans.
“There are people who believe there are no problems in our community. But we have fences to mend. To young people, I say don’t think that just because we have a uniform on we aren’t people. Look past the uniform,” he said.
“I’m happy to hear people want to reach out. I don’t think all white people are bad or all cops are bad,” said 18-year-old Jaydah Bayless, one of several African-American Alton High School students there. “But set yourself apart; be an example.”