BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield’s Community Conversation on Race series continued on Sept. 2, with a livestreamed hour-and-half event for residents on the topic of race and racial bias. It was a continuation of the July 29 event, with guest speakers Wendy Christensen and Desyra Highsmith-Holcomb returning to Bloomfield, in addition to Joseph Graham Jr. Christensen is an associate professor of sociology at William Paterson University, and Highsmith-Holcomb is the director of diversity and inclusion at Clara Maass Medical Center. Graham is the director of equity and education for the Visions and Dreams Foundation.
“Bias is a preference in favor or against something,” Highsmith-Holcomb said during the event. “It may be held by an individual or a group or an institution. There’s systemic racism that makes its way into our structures, that we might not even recognize its foundation.”
Highsmith-Holcomb said that bias is typically learned behavior, and because it can be learned it can be unlearned.
“Once we become reflective of the biases that we hold, that can actually influence our behavior,” Highsmith-Holcomb said. “A lot of unconscious bias is a knee-jerk reaction. We’ve been exposed to thoughts and perceptions through education, through family, through the people we went to school with, maybe the religion we upheld. There’s all these influences that we might be unaware of that are contributing to biases that we now hold.”
Graham talked about the importance of context when he spoke during the event.
“When things are taken out of context, whatever conclusion a person comes to is wrong,” he said. “Bias is about taking things out of context and not looking at the truth of what’s in front of you, but taking these preconceived notions that are already in your subconscious that you think you can trust to make certain judgments, and obviously that is detrimental on a smaller scale when making small decisions. But when we take this same mentality into positions of power, then it can have a mighty effect and intergenerational impact on people.”
Councilwoman Wartyna Davis, who moderated the event with Councilwoman Jenny Mundell, suggested during the discussion portion of the evening that having an “accountability partner” can help people unlearn biases.
“If you desire to have an anti-racist approach, it requires some accountability,” she said. “If you say something, that may seem perfectly normal for you. Have someone in your life who says ‘You made this commitment to be better and this might be an important way to do that.’ It’s one thing to set a goal in your mind to be anti-racist, but it’s important to have people that will hold you accountable.”
Highsmith-Holcomb agreed and added that the accountability partner needs to come from a trusting relationship.
“There needs to be trust in that process to be able to receive that feedback and be inspired to see things differently because you respect and value the person who is your accountability partner,” she said.
Christensen presented several scenarios and asked viewers of the livestream what they would do in the situation, including one that involved seeing a white woman calling the police on a group of black teenagers playing basketball.
“I have lived that reality,” Graham said, encouraging residents to stop the 911 call from happening. “And I’ve seen it go both ways, I’ve seen the other side of that. When you look at what’s in the news today and what sometimes happens, you may actually be saving a life by doing something as simple as checking somebody on their bias.”