Social Bias: Interview with Isaac Oboka

My partner Isaac and I recently celebrated ten adventurous years together. This is a wonderful, lovely thing, but it’s a thing that I sometimes remember would not have been ok before 1967, the year the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of justice and equality in the legendary case of Loving vs Virginia.

Isaac and I are an "inter-racial" couple, and we have spent ample time discussing race identity in our time together. Lately, though, we’ve been discussing it more. For himself, Isaac prefers the term bi-ethnic. His father is from Nigeria, but Isaac himself grew up with his white American mother and half-siblings in Denver, Colorado, listening to the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Queen. His perspective is unusual, and his insights around interpersonal communication and social bias, in particular, seem to me rather important these days. Talking with him has informed my thinking about listening, empathy, and community.

The following is a transcribed and edited interview that took place at our dining room table:

Sharna: Isaac, can you summarize your thoughts on interacting with new people and strangers, especially if we consider them to be different from us in some way?

Isaac: I think we all have social bias inherent in our being, and it’s one of the first things that is triggered when we interact with someone else.  Social bias can be positive or negative. As soon as you see another person, you have some sort of idea of who you think they are. Understanding and accepting that we all have this impulse is important because it gives us a chance to separate the image we have of the person [in our minds] from the real person that’s standing in front of us.

S: Can you explain a little more what you mean about separating the ‘image’ from the ‘real?’ I feel like that is really critical.

I: There’s always a difference between the image of the person in your mind and the person that is actually in front of you. Say you meet someone who looks to be of Latin American decent based on their coloring. The assumptions held about that person will be different from individual to individual. You might assume they speak Spanish, or that they don’t speak English well. You might assume that they are an immigrant, that they are lazy, that they are free-loading. That is a stereotypical image that you may have. The problem is that if you don’t recognize that image as a social bias, then even if that person tells you that they grew up in Ohio and recently got a PhD in social psychology, I don’t think your original image will change very much.

S: So, not even hearing real facts from the person’s own mouth can change the false image?

I: Generally, no. If you think a person is intelligent, you’ll really only listen for things that confirm that. If you believe, say, that women are NOT intelligent, then no matter what a woman says or does, you’ll make up things to justify your belief. Similarly, if you believe black men are gang members, then it doesn’t matter their level of education or courteous actions, you’ll still see them as dangerous, violent, bad guys.

Does this look like a dangerous, violent bad guy? I didn't think so. How can you not love a man who smiles like this?

Does this look like a dangerous, violent bad guy? I didn't think so. How can you not love a man who smiles like this?

Ok, pause. There is now a whole field of research, of course, that has come to the same conclusion that Isaac has about social bias, including the famous Harvard Implicit Bias Test. I was curious, though, how he had learned this through his own life experience, so I asked him about that, too:

I: I grew up in a white middle class environment, but I was not white and our family was not middle class. Starting in middle school, all of my peer interactions involved me explaining myself as NOT a drug dealer, NOT a gang member, and NOT having natural ability at sports. When we played Star Trek on the playground, I could never be the captain; I was always the Klingon. I don’t think any of us made these decisions consciously; it just seemed like we all knew that was the way it was supposed to be.

I didn’t understand the difference between me and the other kids for a while. I only knew that there WAS a difference. We grew up watching the same TV shows, playing on the same playground, attending the same schools, sitting in the same classes. I think once I realized that the difference was skin color, and noticed the way that they were treated and the way that I was treated, that’s when I started paying more attention to TV shows, movies, and different kinds of music.

In movies, for example, I noticed that there was rarely someone who was black, and if they were black, they were the first person to die in a shootout. Which was horrible, but it gave me a possible understanding of how other people viewed me, and once I understood that, I started really thinking about how perceptions of me had been formed long before I even said anything.

One of my favorite images from the tango chapter of our life together. Did I mention Isaac's hugs are world-renown? (2006)

One of my favorite images from the tango chapter of our life together. Did I mention Isaac's hugs are world-renown? (2006)

One of the many things I admire about Isaac is his ability to not take things personally. How many of us would gladly give up a few years of our lives to have this super power? Isaac can talk to just about anyone: Hollywood celebrities, far-right conservatives, homeless folks, church ladies, academics, construction workers, and performance artists. I was curious if this skill was related to his early observations of patently false racial assumptions:

I: I think I try to keep in mind that anything in your past can lead you anywhere. It is possible that the homeless person on the street was once a multi-million dollar tycoon that made a bunch of money in the dot.com boom and for some reason lost it all. That’s a possibility. Just like the person who is a million dollar tycoon could have grown up on the street. There’s no reason that these things are not possible. So I generally go into a conversation looking for information that contradicts any social bias that I might have.

S: Would you say part of your strategy is a habit of checking your own social bias?

I: I think those judgments that I have happen so quickly and strongly that they seem to be built in. The only way to deal with that is to recognize that it is happening and to take steps to manage it. When you see someone, you make assumptions about that person, but those assumptions are almost never true. So it’s always more beneficial to figure out who the person is and if they mean you harm or don’t mean you harm and the only way to do that is to interact with them.

I think currently the line that we are all still getting is that if you are not a white Christian, you’re bad, and that is scary because that is absolutely not true and as the diversity of the country grows we need to figure out how to interact with people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t talk like us, and figure out how to get to know them, which is the part that we are missing.

S: Ok, but how do we get to know each other if we all have social bias?

I: My general strategy is to say something that is a fairly common stereotype about myself. I am 6’2”, fairly athletic, and a black man. So I make a joke like, “I almost got drafted for the NBA but they couldn’t teach me how to shoot a basket.” Usually I can gauge the other person’s reaction, whether they are remotely open to the idea that the reality of who I am might be different from that stereotype. If they do laugh, then I might mention some kind of open-ended stereotype about them.

S: So you make jokes about stereotypes on both sides?

I: Yes, the most far-fetched stereotypes possible. If they are Asian American, I might ask them if they know kung-fu. I think this opens up the possibility for me and the other person to get to know each other. I don’t play basketball, you don’t know kung-fu, so what DO you like, what DO you know, what DO you do, where did you grow up, who are you as a person?

I actually end up asking the same question a number of times because at first, people filter through their own biases. When *I* initially ask people about things they’re interested in, it’s generally listening to rap music or playing sports, but that may not be the things they are most interested in, they are just showing what they think I want to see or trying to gain social capital with me, which is ridiculous. So over time I ask similar questions and I start to get more personal information.

I also think it’s important that I try to be truthful and honest straight from the get-go, which sometimes shocks people just right out of the gate. When people say “How are you doing today,” if I’m having a shitty day I usually say something like “You know, I’m not having a great day or things aren’t that great.” People are caught off guard because that’s not the proper response. You’re supposed to just say, “I’m fine how are you?” Then, sometimes they ask follow-up questions like, “Well, what’s not going well?” and that puts me in a position where I can share something more about myself. That gives us more to talk about.

- - -

Isaac is really great with kids. He says he appreciates their directness and authenticity, and of course their willingness to share milkshakes.

Isaac is really great with kids. He says he appreciates their directness and authenticity, and of course their willingness to share milkshakes.

Listening to Isaac’s story, his insight seems so clear, his turnaround rather incredible. As a recipient of continuous and flagrant racial bias, he developed an anti-bias approach to communication. Excluded from any existing racial group, he became radically inclusive of others.

Although he admits that calling stereotypes out on the carpet can sometimes backfire, his conviction that there is always more to every person than what meets the eye guides all of his interactions. Perhaps not many of us would argue with that premise; however, recognizing truth in the abstract is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another, and that is what I think is truly remarkable and worth underscoring here. Isaac doesn’t pretend anyone is immune from social bias, even himself. It’s his full acceptance of bias in the first place that allows him to shift it, one conversation at a time.

Knowing the bias is there, Isaac looks for ways to sidestep it by telling jokes, asking personal questions, and sharing his own stories. His way of engaging with people increases the chances of a human connection being made, and that connection short-circuits social bias. It’s what allows us to hear each other, to feel we belong together, that we’re on the same team.

As we witness a “connection crisis” in our country right now, and worldwide, I personally feel challenged to go beyond what is comfortable in rethinking what connection means to me, what community means to me. How can I connect authentically with those who seem, at first, different? Those who seem, at first, to not understand me, to disagree with me, who resent me, even? These are not idle questions, but urgent ones. We need lots of creative and diverse answers to them. Please leave yours in the comments.