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Bias and the Durag

My son Liam, age 15

My son Liam came back from the barber one day and asked me to buy him a durag. “A do what?” I asked. He googled a picture and showed me. The barber had recommended it for his new haircut to create and protect his waves. I hesitated. Where I grew up, I didn’t see durags. Even when I moved to the United States in the eighties, I don’t remember seeing anyone wearing one. But I sure saw enough of them on TV, where I consumed a media diet of African-Americans portrayed as criminals, gang members and thugs. You know the type of images where African-Americans stand menacingly on street corners waiting to assault the unwitting victim or sitting in a beat-up-old car about to commit a drive-by shooting. My husband didn’t want our son wearing the durag in public. We felt people might label him and treat him differently.

“It’s only your generation that thinks that way,” Liam insisted. “Everyone in my generation knows what a durag is for.”

We didn’t agree, but we decided to let him wear it to his baseball game. I was watching for it, but I’m sure it wasn’t my imagination that the umpires gave him one of those funny looks of suspicion. Now I’m not blaming the ump. After all, haven’t I felt the same way when seeing a man in a durag? I’m not racist, am I?

Most people don’t think they are racist and feel insulted when that accusation is levelled at them or their organization. It’s more helpful to understand how the brain works with regard to racism. It’s also more helpful to use the term implicit bias which means bias is present but not plainly expressed, rather than racism which is a set of beliefs that one race is superior to another. It’s more acceptable to admit that all of us have an implicit bias in some way. A simplistic explanation for this is that our brains are designed to keep us safe. If it looks like a sabre tooth tiger, it probably is, so avoid it. When we are fed negative images of certain racial groups, those images are stored in the brain where it categorizes people and events as familiar and safe, or unsafe. What the media shows us has a profound effect on how we view our world.

I like to think of the brain as having two main parts: the primitive brain and the reasoning brain although I know the brain is much more complex. The primitive brain is the part that when triggered, makes us feel fearful or anxious. We are more likely to behave in a way that is biased when we feel threatened. The rational brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the part we use to tell ourselves to stop being ridiculous and that there is a better, more rational way to think. If this is how our brains naturally work, why should we feel badly about our implicit biases? What can bias do?

You can accuse a child of taking home (stealing) your child’s library books because no one else was in your house. Then you feel dumb when you find the library books behind your bookcase. This happened to my daughter. She was the accused. Or you can look suspiciously at a child and his father, peering into their car, after asking if they’ve seen your child’s sport equipment because said sports equipment disappeared – only to find out your child left the sports equipment on the field and the coach picked it up. This happened to my son. He was the accused. Or, you can be walking in the park and it’s twilight. A man is coming toward you in a durag. There is a moment of fear, of suspicion and mistrust. But then there’s the realization that you’re being foolish because your own son wears a durag. There is also the realization that the young man wearing the durag now passing you is a boy. Just another teenage boy trying to protect his hair. You feel silly. Guilty even. Then proud because you’ve realized that you have challenged your implicit bias. You’ve used your prefrontal cortex instead of giving way to the primitive brain and allowing fear and mistrust to take over. On more reflection, you get worried imagining someone being afraid of your own son. Your kind, sensitive son who always reaches out to touch your arm and ask if you’re okay on those days when you feel crappy. The same son who is willing to help you do the laundry when you’re exhausted. You hope that if someone is ever afraid of this lovely child, they will use their rational brain. You’ve seen what happens when people don’t. Reasoning shuts down and emotions take over. Being accused of taking something is hurtful but minor compared to loss of life. You then realize you have to write this blog, even though it has taken six months. It’s an uncomfortable topic, one you’d rather not address, at least, not now. But when? So you do it to tell the world these things:

A durag is worn to protect curly/kinky hair and to create and maintain waves. (I have no idea how it does this, I just know it works).

We all have biases, but we are capable of challenging them. It’s not easy, nor is it comfortable but it’s possible. It doesn’t end with anti-racism and cultural sensitivity training that workplaces nowadays are providing for employees. It’s much more helpful to have conversations with others who are not like us.

Feeling guilty about our biases is counterproductive. Feeling compassionate to ourselves and others, and curious about learning why we behave the way we do and how we can change our biases is much more helpful and satisfying.

Sometimes it’s exhausting to think about this stuff, but if we want a more equitable world for all, it’s necessary.