Patricia Williams Lessane

Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane/Provided

The concept of "implicit bias" has loomed large this month in the aftermath of the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks and a racist tweet from Roseanne Barr that likened a former aide to President Barack Obama to an ape. 

In response to the arrest, Starbucks mandated nationwide implicit bias training on Tuesday for employees at more than 8,000 stores. And in response to the tweet, ABC canceled its revival of Barr's sitcom "Roseanne." 

On Tuesday night inside a North Charleston church, people gathered to ask questions about their own racial bias and the bias of others. A diverse audience filled the pews of the Cokesbury United Methodist Church to hear from two panelists.

Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane, executive director of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, shared with the audience her knowledge and research related to how implicit and explicit bias shapes institutions. 

The Rev. Keith Hunter, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Hollywood, spoke from his authority as a faith leader. The church, he said, reminds him that all men are created equal in God's image. Before being called to ministry, Hunter was a civil rights activist. 

Other United Methodist churches of the Lowcountry intend to replicate this event in June.

 Here are some questions and answers from the forum: 

"What is implicit bias?" 

Before the question was answered, South Georgia native and Lowcountry minister Richard Reams shared a personal anecdote from his childhood.

When he was young, an African-American family moved into his upper middle-class white neighborhood. Within the next week, he said, six houses went up for sale. Ream said he did not think twice about that. 

"Where I grew up, you weren't racist unless your family was actually in the KKK," he said. "I'm here tonight because I need to learn." 

Lessane further defined implicit biases as the images and ideas in our minds about other people. These ideas are based on generations of repeated portrayals of harmful stereotypes that manifest in both explicit and implicit bias.

"Is 'black' or 'African-American' preferred?" 

Hunter said that he prefers neither term, that he would rather be seen first as a human being. 

"We are all created in God's image," he said. 

Lessane agreed with Hunter but noted that some type of distinction is necessary for the purposes of answering the census or applying affirmative action. 

"We know we have a flawed system in education."

Ultimately, Lessane said she doesn't think much about the difference between being called black or African-American because she has "bigger fish to fry." 

An older woman in the audience agreed. She stood and shouted to the rest, "If we need to ask that question in 2018, then we are really in trouble."

"What is the best way to compensate for biases if you can't get rid of them?" 

Lessane, who has participated in many panels like this one since 2015, said she had never heard this question before. She suggested that people genuinely hung up by stereotypes and biases could donate their time or money to organizations dedicated to combating racism.

The Rev. Bernie Mazyck, who moderated Tuesday's forum, also offered advice. 

"Immerse yourself in every kind of culture you can," he said. 

"Can raising money help?" 

Resoundingly, "yes." 

Lessane mentioned the option of putting financial support toward documentaries and media intended to shine light on racial injustices. She suggested audience members take time to go to Netflix and watch Ava Duvernay's film "13th." The documentary chronicles the history of the 13th Amendment and the subsequent policies that have shaped and commercialized the prison industrial complex. 

"Until young white people are caught up in a system the way young black people are, there will be no traction," Lessane said. 

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Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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