UNPOPULAR OPINION: Everyone Has Biased Thoughts, And We Need to Stop Beating Ourselves Up About It

Everyone has had racist thoughts. Everyone has had homophobic thoughts. Everyone has had bigoted thoughts, full stop.
Publish date:
August 17, 2016
unpopular opinion, racism, stigma, OCD, biases

In her July 18 speech before the NAACP, Hillary Clinton spoke briefly about the problem of implicit bias: bias that operates on an unconscious and automatic level. To solve the problem of police brutality, she said, we must actively "root out" the knee-jerk attitudes that inform our day-to-day actions.

Broadly speaking, I support this position. I support criminal justice reform. I support Black Lives Matter. I believe that racism (and sexism and classism and homophobia, et cetera, et cetera) are not surface-level problems perpetuated by a few "bad apples," but rather systemic diseases in our society — cancers deeply embedded in both our social structures and our individual minds.

With all that said, though, the slash-and-burn rhetoric Clinton is using here terrifies me. If we continue to think of implicit bias in the way that Clinton seems to — as an assortment of impure thoughts to be scrubbed from our collective consciousness — we're never going to be able to deal with it effectively. Because here's the thing: Everyone has had racist thoughts. Everyone has had homophobic thoughts. Everyone has had bigoted thoughts, full stop. I'm a woman who describes herself as a feminist, and I have misogynistic thoughts every single day. While I'd love it if there were a way to turn off the part of my brain that side-eyes a woman wearing booty shorts and a halter top, I know — painfully well — that there isn't. Grappling with mental illness for close to 15 years has taught me that.

Let me back up a little. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, a psychiatric condition characterized by a one-two punch of anxiety-inducing "intrusive" thoughts and compulsive actions that temporarily curb that anxiety. My particular variety of OCD is sometimes known as "Pure O," because most of my obsessing and compulsing happens inside my own brain, shading into one continuous stream of worries; often, in my case, about being some kind of "sociopath."

Strong term? Definitely, but also an easy cognitive leap for me to make. Like a lot of people with Pure O, I'm prone to something called "thought-action fusion"; my instinct is to take every thought or feeling I experience, no matter how fleeting, as evidence of my true moral character. If my cat won't stop yowling and I mentally tell him to stuff it, the guilt I feel afterward is more on par with what I imagine keeps actual animal abusers up at night.

Maybe you can see where this is going. When I have a thought like, "I wouldn't date a guy without a college degree," I have an extraordinarily difficult time simply saying, "Huh. That thought's not in line with what I consciously value. I should probably be aware of that." Instead, I break into a cold sweat and feel my heart cracking the speedometer as my mind screams, "Classist!" at me over and over and over again. So yeah, I have to break liberal ranks on the idea that "white guilt" (or male guilt or class guilt or whatever) is really just being a responsible person: The shame I feel when I realize I've had a prejudiced thought is real, bottomless, and qualitatively different from anything empathetic or even vaguely useful.

Now, you can think I'm being too sensitive, and in a way, I'd agree with you; like I just said, devolving into a sobbing mess when confronted with my own problematic attitudes clearly doesn't do anyone any good. But also: You don't know what you're talking about, and if I wanted to, I could call you out for being ableist. After all, the difficulty I have keeping my cool under stress is by definition excessive and beyond my control; that's what makes it a disorder rather than a charming personality quirk.

As it happens, though, I don't want to say any of that. Not because the thought itself isn't ableist (it is), and not because it doesn't hurt when you perceive my mental illness as an excuse (it does). Pragmatically, though, I've come to believe that labeling the thought "bad" and thus making you feel guilty about it is totally counterproductive.

See, exaggerated as my own emotional responses may be, I really doubt that I'm the only person who reacts to intimations of their own unconscious biases with some level of panic. Why do you think people get so defensive when they're told to "check their privilege"? Because the majority of them believe that certain thoughts are "wrong," and they're terrified of discovering that they themselves harbor them. Because having those thoughts would say something about them. Because we, as a culture, tend to equate "having biased thoughts" with "being a bigot."

In other words, that "thought-action fusion" thing I mentioned earlier? Everyone does it, and it's a problem. It's a problem for me, personally, because every time I check Facebook, I can expect to see someone encouraging me to do precisely what I shell out money every week to avoid doing — namely, identify with my own thoughts. But it's also a problem for society at large. Because here's the counterintuitive thing about intrusive thoughts: To get rid of them, you have to stop fighting them.

If that sounds scary, well, that's a good indication of just how accustomed we are to thinking of thoughts as inherently good or bad. But if you have a mood or anxiety disorder, one of the first things you're likely to hear from a therapist is that thoughts just are. They are experiences that your brain spontaneously generates, for who-knows-what complex set of biological and environmental reasons. They are not in and of themselves good or bad. And, most importantly, they are not you.

In the realm of bias, of course, the line between thought and action can seem worryingly blurry. If unconscious prejudices are shaping the way we behave, doesn't it make sense to recognize those prejudices when we catch them drifting through our minds?

Recognize, yes. But condemn? I'm not so sure. In my search for solutions to my OCD and depression, I eventually stumbled into the office of a cognitive-behavioral therapist, who immediately told me to stop wrestling with the thoughts and feelings I find so distressing. Reacting to an upsetting idea with fear or condemnation, she said, is actually counterproductive; by kicking your system into fight-or-flight mode, you've essentially provided your brain with a most-wanted list, and your brain — eager to ensure your safety and survival — will helpfully bring to your attention everything that resembles the perceived threat.

Even if that means generating the threat (read: distressing thought) itself.

In other words, when we beat ourselves up over knee-jerk responses, we're not just wasting time and energy that would be better expended on real-world action; we're quite possibly ensuring that we'll continue to respond to events in ways that are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Rather than hating the thoughts and judging ourselves for having them, we should be accepting their presence.

Let me say that again: We should be accepting the thought's presence not its content. We can and should challenge what our minds are saying to us, but we should challenge that in a way that's thoughtful and calm, rather than reactive. Maybe (probably) we'll never succeed in entirely eliminating the thoughts, but at least we'll be able to recognize them for what they are — thoughts — while we go about acting in ways that we consciously embrace.

Of course, maybe all this just seems like so much tone policing. That's really not my intention, though. I wasn't being totally flippant when I brought up ableism earlier; when I suspect that someone is thinking about me in a negative way because of my mental illness (or, for that matter, because of my gender), it hurts. Personally, I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that someone can have biased thoughts about me while still being considerate and respectful in word and action. In other words, while still being a good person. If, however, you've experienced oppression on account of your race, gender, religion, etc., and can't or don't want to do the same? That's your choice, and no one should demand that you "get over" your pain.

To the extent that I am tone policing, then, I'm just asking people to tone police their criticism of themselves. It's unhelpful to try to slap down every "bad" thought you have —unhelpful, I would argue, even to regard the thoughts themselves as "bad." What matters isn't the thought itself, but the way you respond to it. As a wise man once said, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

And whatever you do, don't start beating yourself up about your tendency to beat yourself up. Or, if you do, come chat with me about "meta OCD" sometime.