I discovered a subconscious bias I didn’t know I had.

I’ve been watching a lot of tv lately, which I hate, because that means I get very few other things done.

My sister recommended a show to me, On My Block. Basically, these four kids live in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles. One of their friends joins a gang, albeit somewhat against his will, and the three friends spend two seasons (all I’ve watched so far) trying to “save” him.

Spoiler Alert: Cesar, the friend who joins the gang, and his older brother Spooky—part of the reason why Cesar joins the gang in the first place—spend some bro time on the beach. They talk about their childhood. And Spooky gives us an insight into his former hopes and dreams before gang life and prison.

I remember commenting to my husband how much I enjoyed learning about Spooky’s past and how much the show humanized him. Because other shows I’ve seen rarely gives us insight into the former life of people who join gangs in such a way that evokes strong empathy. Usually, gang members are criminals, the enemy, and the antagonist of a show willing to hurt other people for their own selfish greed or pride. That’s it.

If you didn’t grow up with gangs in your neighborhood, nor watched TV and movies with gangs, you have the local news. Local news does not humanize, or empathize with people who had to choose between bad and worse life trajectories, where joining a gang was the bad choice.

All you see are stoic, beaten-down, brown and black mug shots and hear about the crimes they allegedly committed.

It’s never, “He was such a good person, I don’t know why he felt like he had to join a gang,”…or “I wish he should have just come to me, I could have helped him so he didn’t have to resort to this…”

Admittedly, I’ve never met anyone who’s been in a gang. And I’m sure people in gangs run the gamut in their situations—perfectly nice folks who got themselves initiated because they had no other choice: needed protection, saw it as the only way to get money for food, chose gang-life camaraderie over suicide; and people who are a-holes looking for some power and control.

Nonetheless, this moment, when Spooky divulges a bit about his past, is when I realized I had some subconscious bias against people in gangs.

I never thought about his past. It never occurred to me that Spooky was someone other than a gang member and brother to the main character. That perhaps he had a reason for ending up where he did.

(You could argue that he is a flat character and his past is irrelevant. That his nature as a character is why I disregarded him, but I didn’t disregard any of the other minor, non-gang characters that way.)

I’ve only learned fairly recently (maybe the last 5-7 years) that societal circumstances—the legacy of white supremacy, poverty, and American capitalism—leads people to gang life. It is easy to learn this academically, but I had no real frame of reference for the reality. I knew, but hadn’t applied this to my day-to-day thinking on a conscious level.

Part of me still harbored reservations and held onto them subconsciously. If I were to see a cluster of people who I thought were gang members on the street in a rough neighborhood, I would be scared. I wouldn’t think about them being people with families, children, and moms who loved them. People who one day wanted to be something other than a gang member when they grew up. That wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would see a criminal record of theft and murder.

I wouldn’t call the cops because, well, I know better than that. I don’t assume they are doing something bad at that moment because they are just existing, standing there, loitering even. But I wouldn’t be able to imagine their life past a possible criminal record.

And to me, that’s a problem. I think it’s the reason bougie Black folks cannot forgive Black people in the life. If they served time for their crimes and were committed to a new life, I think we’d support them, but we’d be waiting for them to screw up.

We could forgive them if they atoned, but not really. We could not see past what they’d done, when we didn’t have to resort to a life of crime to make it in life. We knew about other options; we had other options.

The difference between “us” and “them” is that we have class privilege. That often means more information on how to “make it” without gang life. We learned how to assimilate as much as possible, how to superficially reduce negative stereotypes. We survived differently. A way that made us turn our backs on everyone else, minimize our blackness, utilize society’s “crutches” and programs to our advantage to climb the latter and break ceilings. We’ve been subtlely asked to turn our backs on “them” to get a leg up and “fit in.”

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood like the characters in On My Block. I didn’t have to literally fight for what I needed to survive. And I’ve said in other posts, I was of victim of white supremacy, too, but in a different way.

I had been brainwashed so badly that I saw what the media wanted me to see. Black and brown people as thugs. Criminals. I never thought about their life outside of the gang.

Black people are not immune to the brainwashing that makes us hate or fear our own people. We are not immune to thinking, well if they made better choices—when the reality is there were no better choices. If we survived by identifying as much as possible with white society, they had to survive fighting other black and brown people for scraps.

In general, it’s hard to see past whatever label society has given a person. Psychology says our brain automatically categorizes and labels people, objects, and situations because it helps us retain information and make decisions. White supremacy capitalizes on that (like they do everything) and has us looking at our own people with fear, skepticism, and distrust, especially if they have a rough history.

But now that I’ve learned about this subconscious bias I have, it’s time for me to retrain my brain. Acknowledge the humanity of people who have joined gangs. Think differently. So if I ever encounter a person who has lived a life I know nothing of, I can be as open to them as I would anyone else.

What biases do you have? What biases have you overcome? Drop me a note in the comments.

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