“Welcome to Zimmer Land,” Lady Justice says. I flash my ID badge at Mariam. She frowns at me from her chair in the front box office. I use the employee entrance behind Lady Justice — all thirty feet of her. When it’s quiet, you can hear the gears that move the huge scale she’s holding up and down. The sword she has in her other hand is longer than my body, and it points directly at you when you’re at the ticket booth.
So begins Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s brilliant, disturbing story, “Zimmer Land,” about a young black man who works at a theme park in a nondescript part of America. He reports to work, puts on futuristic armor under his uniform of white t-shirt and baggy jeans, and prepares to engage with the white “patron” waiting for him outside of house 327. Patrons are gamers eager to “get their justice on.” His job is to play “a young man who is up to no good or nothing at all” and wait to be apprehended by a player. What ensues, each and every time, is a tense interaction in which the white patron becomes afraid, lashes out violently, and “kills” the nameless black employee. After the game is over, the white patron asserts that he was operating in self-defense and that the individual playing the role of the “young man … up to no good or nothing at all” was a threat. In fact, the actor had simply been a black male out of doors.
“Zimmer Land,” like Adjei-Brenyah’s other stories in his excellent Friday Black, may be surrealist fiction but clearly draws inspiration from real life (in this case, most likely the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and subsequent national conversation about, among other things, the deadly mix of guns and implicit bias). It also provides its readers with starkly dramatic renderings of how implicit bias can appear. Taking a different tack to explore implicit bias, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s recent book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, offers a research-based analysis of what implicit bias is, how it works, and its devastating, often deadly, effects.
“Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist,” Dr. Eberhardt writes. “Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society. We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us. Those ideas have the power to bias our perception, our attention, our memory, and our actions — all despite our conscious awareness or deliberate intentions. Our ideas about race are shaped by the stereotypes to which we are exposed on a daily basis.”
Eberhardt works with law enforcement to bring awareness to the role of implicit bias in policing but has wisdom to share with educators as well. “Integrated schools promise to turn us into global citizens, appreciative of cultural differences, skilled at navigating diversity. In integrated spaces, we become more practiced at communicating across racial lines… But as research suggests and real life demonstrates, integrated spaces can also heighten the threat of becoming the target of bias.”
She tells a personal story about an experience her son had where he was disciplined for bleaching the tips of his hair because his school had a strict dress code prohibiting students from dyeing their hair. Meanwhile, female students who were white were not disciplined because their use of hair dye did not show as obviously to those in positions of authority. When Eberhardt met with the dean to address the bias at work against her son, there were tense moments of denial and affront, followed by recognition and remorse, which helped to diffuse the situation. It wasn’t fun or easy, but, as Eberhardt writes, “confronting implicit bias requires us to look in the mirror … By acknowledging the distorting lens of fear and bias, we move one step closer to clearly seeing each other.”
The steady drumbeat of news and reporting about what’s happening inside our schools makes clear that the pervasive harm of implicit bias continues to go un-acknowledged, much less un-confronted. That acknowledgment piece – which ties to what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was talking about when he asked, “How can conversation begin when we disagree about reality?” – will certainly benefit from the great work of Eberhardt and Adjei-Brenyah, although acknowledgement alone won’t solve the problem of implicit bias in our society and our schools. As we head back to school in the coming weeks, we are wise to not only watch for implicit bias but, critically, interrogate our own actions and behaviors in our classrooms, hallways, and relationships — knowing that its power lies precisely in its ability to go undetected — and to address and dismantle it as it unfolds. Impromptu discussions about implicit bias, although rarely comfortable, can lead to some of the most impactful and important lessons in school today.