*Note: First appeared in Quail Bell Magazine June 28th, 2015.
"The Secret Life of Bees" is a favorite among book clubs and English classes for its themes of motherhood, spirituality, and racial tension during the Civil Rights Era. But the book also addresses problems we still see today: hidden biases.
Though Lily, the fourteen-year-old white protagonist, has grown up with her black mother-figure Rosaleen and is considerably kinder to her than her father T. Ray, she still falls victim to the thinking of her time. When she meets August, one of the three beekeeper sisters that Lily and Rosaleen find in Tiburon, SC, she is shocked to discover that August is in fact, very intelligent and well-read.
Lily comes to terms with her own existing biases, saying, “T. Ray did not think colored women were smart. Since I want to tell the whole truth, which means the worst parts, I thought that they could be smart, but not as smart as me, me being white. Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured, and I was surprised by this. That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me."
Shocked, Lily comes to terms with the ugly truth of hidden bias. By confronting them, she is able to develop more fulfilling and eye-opening relationships with her new mothers and love interest Zach.
So now for real talk: Does having hidden biases make you a horrible person?
No. It makes you human.
Having hidden biases does not make you racist, bigoted, or terrible. But it does mean that they should be confronted, for you to be honest, and to continue to self-evaluate yourself, no matter how old (or wise) you are.
An education class I took one spring discussed hidden biases in the classroom. We started out by listing stereotypes we were aware of on post-it notes and put them on the board. We read them aloud and discussed them. We were then asked to share any stories about either our own biases or if we’ve ever been a victim of it. A woman sitting beside me raised her hand and said “Whenever my teachers would need someone to move heavy stuff for them, they’d ask for ‘two strong boys,’” she paused, looking irritated. “I mean, I’m strong! I worked on a farm. I carried bales of hay all the time. I could do it! But they never asked.”
Others in class chimed in with their own experiences, including an Asian woman frustrated by her peers always asking her for math help.
“My classmates would say stuff like, “What do you mean you can’t do math? You’re Asian, aren’t you?’ Well yeah, I’m Asian, but that doesn’t mean I’m automatically gifted in the STEM fields. Even if I was, I’m not going to do your math homework.”
Our professor then told us about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) available through Project Implicit created by Harvard University. The IAT measures a person’s link between various representations of concepts or objects in the memory. Among the many (free!) tests they have available include religion, gender, sexuality, race, body size and even presidents. One test compares images of white and black people with weapons and harmless objects. Another tests bias against women in the workplace and STEM field careers. In total, there are 14 tests available.
Though I encourage anyone to try out one or more of the tests, recent events should also cause every citizen to look at themselves and challenge thinking in their environment. You won’t know what you’re missing out on until you do.