Bias: You’re Soaking In It

Dante just got finished with a “family unit” in school, and the assignments he brought home got me thinking about how deeply our day-to-day lives are pervaded by cultural bias. It’s like the beginning of a beloved David Foster Wallace speech:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Like Madge’s victims in the old Palmolive commercials, we’re soaking in some powerful stuff, and it’s affecting us in ways we don’t always realize.

Take, for instance, an assignment that asks the student to list the birth years of his mother, father, and both sets of grandparents, and to provide photos of these people. Straightforward enough. But what happens when that assignment comes home with a kid who’s adopted? Or orphaned? Or being raised by a gay couple? Or foster parents? Or a single parent who has no contact with the other parent? Or (just hypothetically) estranged from one set of grandparents? I suppose I know what happens: a teachable moment. Hey, it’s a great opportunity to contrast our family with the cultural norm of what constitutes a family, and talk with our kid about how there can be all kinds of configurations, and they’re all okay, despite the assumptions coded into the stuff your school just sent home with you. Still, it’s awkward, and can be unwelcome.

That’s not a terribly subtle case. Consider instead an assignment that asks the family to write up a favorite family recipe, and maybe make up some of it and send it to school with your kid so that the class can have a food festival celebrating its diversity. Again, it’s wonderfully well-intentioned, but it does have some cultural bias baked in, as it were. For one thing, there’s the implied suggestion that, since the class celebration is focused around diversity, the recipe you send ought to be connected with some sort of ethnicity. If your family is from Ohio and the food you make tends to involve Velveeta or Ritz Crackers, you might feel slightly abashed at sending it to school with your kid, there to sit alongside Tandoori Chicken, Vietnamese Fried Bananas, Rasgulla, Sopaipillas, Wassail, and Pumpkin Empanadas. In addition, there’s general cultural pressure, at least in my peer group, to demonstrate how healthy and nutritious your diet is — if you’re going public with your family food, you risk judgment of that food’s nutritional value, and corresponding judgment of your parenting.

Even more fundamental is the assumption that something that families do is cook from recipes. Surely every family has some treasured recipes, right? Can you imagine a family that just feeds its kid from cans and boxes, or by putting together the simplest ingredients? (“Place lunchmeat on crackers. Serve immediately.”) No, of course families cook, and of course they repeat the recipes they use, despite the existence of an endless Internetful of recipes to try. So it should be no trouble for you to provide us with a family recipe.

If it were just me asked to do such a thing, I’d go straight for the comedy, like the lunchmeat example above. But I can’t very well send my kid to school with an answer that implicitly mocks the question. So instead, we improvised by writing up what we call “Dante Mix”, which is a peanut-free sort of trail mix that Laura concocted in order to sneak a little more protein into his body alongside the sugars and starches. A little awkward, but okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually object to these kinds of assignments per se. I understand the purpose — the birth years one was meant to teach kids about generations and genetic lines, and the recipe one was meant to illustrate how many different kinds of family cultures exist alongside each other. I’m very averse to the mentality that expects the world to conform to my particular quirks or those of my family, and I’d certainly never complain to the school or lobby to have those assignments changed. And Dante’s school actually does a great job of acknowledging that there are all kinds of families — they’re very understanding and accommodating of differences on a wide variety of levels.

I just found it illuminating to experience bias from the outside, which is generally how it becomes visible at all. Let’s face it — as a white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied male, I spend most of my life cocooned in privilege. It’s rare that I stumble across a cultural bias that I’m on the wrong side of, and when I do, it’s always worth taking a moment to remember what that feels like, and to make sure that I’m not doing that to anybody else without meaning to.

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2 thoughts on “Bias: You’re Soaking In It

  1. At work, I had to fill out a form for a password-reset tool. There were six or seven security questions that I had to answer (they were all required). They included questions about my “significant other” and about my siblings. And while I do have the latter, I do not have the former, and it’s not like only children are some kind of rarity. So I had to put down that I met my significant other “nowhere.” Sigh.

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