Sermon: Shelach Lecha – Privilege and Unconscious Bias

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 18 June 2020

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an American author, wrote a letter to his adolescent son in his book, ‘Between the world and me’. He tells his story of inhabiting a black body in America, awakening to the truth about his place in the world, and his feeling that, ‘No one survives unscathed.’

I recognise that I am privileged, I will never have to write a letter like that to my children. I will never have to tell my children:

“You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

I recognise that I am privileged. There is no sociology, economics, graphs or charts about me. I will always be able to walk freely on the streets without fear of violence to my body because of the colour of my skin.

Maya Angelou writes, “The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.

Babies begin to notice physical differences, including skin colour, from the age of 6 months. By the age of 2, children will use race to choose playmates. By the age of 5, children can show signs of racial bias, wishing to play and interact with children from their own racial group.

Systematic learned racism impacts our children, who constantly observe us and the way we interact. The small unconscious movements we make, the crossing of the road, the hand on our bag as we enter a lift, influence our children to notice and think about race.

The part of our brain associated with the formation of beliefs about race is also known to be the part of our brain responsible for fear conditioning. We are scientifically bred to fear the other, to drift towards our own. We are plagued with an unconscious bias deep rooted in our psyche.

Our Torah so often acts as a mirror, reflecting that which is still true for us today. This week we see the unconscious bias that is part of many of our lives, sneak into our parasha, as the Israelite scouts enter the promised land and their fear of the other takes over.

The fear of the Israelites is a fear without facts. As the scouts enter the land they see the Anakites and cry, ‘we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.’ This is not the reality, as we come to find in the book of Joshua, when they are able to defeat this exact group. It is about their perception, the Anakites are giants, and they are measly grasshoppers.

Rabbi Nancy Wiener writes that this story highlights a central aspect of our human experience. The facts on the ground are almost irrelevant. It is the personal and collective experience of the spies that leads to their psychological concerns. The scouts are plagued with unconscious bias. They see the people as giants, casting judgement before they get to know them or their strength.

The scouts are driven by their feelings. In the story, the scouts state first that the people are powerful before they comment on the reality of what they saw. They feel first, before they open their eyes. By the time they attempt to analyse the situation, the facts have been distorted with their own perception. What they think they see, is probably not even there at all.

So too for us.

When we fear something, rationally or irrationally, it distorts the facts. When people are different to us, we make judgements grounded on perception and not on reality. We live through the subjectivity of our own experiences and the collective experiences of our own, rather than taking the time to truly get to know the other, to hear their reality.

Not all racism is obvious. But it is experiential and lived. We do not know how our fear impacts others. We do not know how our unconscious bias feels for those on the receiving end. But we do know that if we spend time building relationships with individuals from other races and show a conscious desire to transcend our prejudices, that we can erode racism.

As Edie Friedman said in her Alyth online lecture this Thursday night, the moment that the police denied George Floyd the oxygen he needed to survive, gave oxygen to a worldwide anti-racist movement.  In response to the murder of George Floyd the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote, ‘We have a once in a generation opportunity to tackle long-standing and entrenched racial inequalities.’

We cannot dismiss racism as a thing that happens only in the United States. It is a part of our history, our narrative and our society.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.’ The events of the past two weeks have shown that silence is no longer an option. Not talking about race reinforces racism. It is important that we don’t lose this moment to act.

Now it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist and we must raise our children to be anti-racist. In the words of Rabbi Sandra Lawson, that means ‘working everyday either emotionally or physically to dismantle the racism we have been taught since day one.’ We must work to ensure our community is a place where we don’t let unconscious bias effect other people’s experience, where all feel welcome, and where all feel safe.

Today, we must all play an active role in helping the next generation develop positive attitudes towards diversity. We must educate ourselves by listening, by reading, and by absorbing other’s stories. We must turn this from their problem, to which we are sympathetic, into our problem for which we must fight. We must all be allies, for if not now, when? And if not us, who?

Towards the end of his book, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son:

‘You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.”

I recognise that I am privileged. And with my privilege comes the power and obligation to make people listen. With my privilege come the need to stand with others. With my privilege comes the drive and ability to change the future.