Owning our bias: Are any of us really ‘woke?’

During my twenties I wore my struggles like a badge of honor. I sported the Plight of the Everyman as a chip on my shoulder, suffering fools with the notion that because I’d experienced hardship and seen the dark side of humanity, I could relate to other people’s trauma, however far removed from it I was.

This was the attitude I carried with me into graduate school, fresh off three years as a social worker. I truly believed that what I hadn’t experienced myself, I’d seen firsthand. I had it all figured out. I believe the word we use these days is ‘woke.’

I was about to get schooled.

I laugh about it now. My naivete was thick. And I was walking straight into some of the best education I’ve ever received.

I chose to study journalism because I wanted to combine my interest in social justice with writing. At the time, I was still on a quest to save the world. I had yet to learn that in order to help anyone else I first had to rescue myself.

I walked into Dr. Folu Ogundimu’s qualitative research class fully expecting to rock it. I was back in my element, in a classroom, on a campus with a big clock tower and statues and stuff. I had this in the bag.

The first thing we learned in qualitative research was to address the professor as Folu. He had zero patience for listening to American accents trying to pronounce his last name.

The second thing I would have learned, had I not been so certain Folu was wrong, was that ‘open mindedness’ is a myth.

Based on the current state of the national news media you may be surprised to learn that identifying and minimizing bias is actually highly valued and heavily emphasized in journalism school (or at least it was 15 years ago). It was Folu’s job to teach me how to do this. He pulled no punches, and I am eternally grateful.

The first assignment in the class was to identify a subject or issue that was important to us. A social justice assignment? Yes, please!

I was so busy listing potential topics that I didn’t hear the second half of the assignment. Once we’d chosen a topic, we were to present the idea to Folu in such a way that he could not guess what our own opinion was on the issue.

The next class I handed my three page paper to Folu with the confidence of a straight A student. He glanced casually at the first paragraph and handed it back. “Rewrite it,” he said.

My face burned in fury and embarrassment. I demanded to know why. I’d written a singing paper on gay adoption and foster care, a hot topic in the news at the time.

What came next was nothing short of beautiful, in the painful awful ugly form of the cold, hard truth. Right there, in front of the entire class, my bias was skillfully extracted and dismantled, my open mindedness proven false, and my confidence shattered.

Yes, I’d researched both sides of the argument. But I’d taken what I’d learned and systematically delivered a counterpoint for every stance I disagreed with.

I was so certain that I was on the right side of the issue that I self-righteously believed all the opposing side needed was to see the light. My light.

“This is an op-ed, not a news story,” Folu concluded, after using my paper as an example of how to do the assignment completely wrong, waving it in the air like a conquered battle flag.

“You must earn the right to write an op-ed. You are young journalism students. Nobody cares about your opinions yet. You must first prove yourself through quality reporting.”

He placed it firmly back on the desk in front of me and repeated, “Rewrite it.”

I am proud to say that I did not cry. But I wanted to. I didn’t want to put on my big girl panties and grow up. I wanted to stay firmly entrenched in my own self-righteousness. I was indignant.

My opinions don’t matter?! How dare he?!

For about two hours I mumbled to myself that if he’d only read my entire paper he’d have felt differently. Not news… who did this guy think he was? My paper was the news everyone needed.

But finally, after the burn of humiliation wore off, I slowly came to realize that nobody likes to be told what to think. People want credit for being able to come to their own conclusions.

I realized, in a light-bulb-over-my-head ah-ha moment that my job as a journalist wasn’t to tell people how to think, but to give people all the information they needed to think for themselves.

This was a great lesson for my career. But the truly life changing lesson that Folu taught me was this:

We must stop hiding behind the notion of ‘open mindedness.’ We all have bias. It’s part of the human condition. We are all influenced by the culture we grew up in, our experiences (good and bad), and our temperament.  

I wonder what Dr. Ogundimu thinks of the notion of ‘woke.’ It would be a very interesting conversation. And probably brief. Folu does not mince words.

We are all snobs in one way or another.

Intellectual, religious, financial, social, racial, ethnic, rural, urban, professional, gender, political snob – every single one of us fits into these categories somewhere, somehow.

In order to grow, we must stop pretending that we have all the answers. We must embrace the reality that regardless of how diverse and varied our experiences, they are only ours. Our story doesn’t apply to everyone else.

We all have wisdom to share. But we can’t share ourselves or learn from others when we are all so busy writing op-eds, trying to convince others we are right.

Does this mean we should never value the opinion of others?

Of course not.

But if I learned anything from Folu, it is to do your homework. Never stop digging for the truth from reliable sources. And don’t ever – EVER! – let someone else tell you how to think.

And for all things good and right in the world, don’t insult the intelligence of the people around you by manipulating them with carefully crafted opinions disguised as fact. Don’t turn your life into an op-ed.

Love people enough to give them the facts, and let them decide for themselves what to think. Redefine Love.

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Published July 21, 2019

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