By Beth Lawrence

The subject of racism and equality is touchy. While most people don’t approve of overt racism, they may still unwittingly contribute to the problem.

People of color who are on the receiving end of implicit bias say it is as taxing to deal with as overt racism.

Kelly Brown has lived in Jackson County since 2013 and loves the area and the people. He has been welcomed in the community, but he still feels the weight of stereotypes.

“I think instinctively when I spend time in our community I’m spending a lot of time changing a narrative that has been created about the black community in general, black males especially, just because of the fact that I’m educated,” he said. “I don’t walk around with my pants down like these things that have been created … and considered a part of what it is to be black.”

He often finds people who are shocked that he is educated, speaks well and does not dress a certain way.

“Do you know how often it is that I’ll have a phone call or some kind of communication with someone prior to them meeting me (add to it) my name is Kelly Brown, and they don’t expect to meet a black male,” he said.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota has laid bare issues of police brutality, especially with regard to African Americans and systemic racism that still exists in America.

The Anti-Defamation League defines implicit bias as “unconscious attitudes, stereotypes and unintentional actions, positive or negative, towards members of a group merely because of their membership in that group.”

Munene Mwaniki, an assistant professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Western Carolina University, grew up in Jackson County.

People “have this expectation of how you should be black or what being black should mean or what the black experience is,” Mwaniki said. “You still have those myths of black men as hypersexual, which I’ve dealt with in adult relationships.”

Brown’s first impactful encounter with implicit bias occurred when he was a teen in racially diverse Fayetteville.

“I was at the grocery store, and the lady asked for my receipt,” Brown said. “She didn’t ask anyone else for their receipt as I was leaving.” 

Brown’s father informed him that he had been the subject of racial profiling.

Other times actions are not outright racist but tone deaf to what might hurt the black community.

Mwaniki points to the “ubiquity of the Confederate flag” and Confederate monuments as subtle reminders of a bigger issue.

He remembers a school field trip to the plantation birthplace of Zebulon B. Vance in Weaverville. Vance was a North Carolina governor and Confederate military officer.

Mwaniki was one of very few black children in the class.

“We all came back with Confederate flags, and nobody was telling me what the Confederacy actually stood for,” he said. “All this is treated so innocently, but it very much sort of reaffirms white supremacy in our society. That we don’t want to talk about it; we don’t want to deal with that history means we’re not going to see very much progress.”

He calls implicit bias “death by a thousand cuts” because the effects build gradually.

Both men have had “the talk” with their fathers, the conversation when black parents explain to black teens that their lives could be at risk if stopped by the wrong police officer.

“For my entire life, I’ve always known that when I get in the car I should always put my wallet in the cup holder,” Brown said. “The fact that my dad thought that was an important lesson for me to learn speaks volumes. To this day that is something that I instinctively do.”

He was warned that if pulled over he should stop in a well-lit area with people around, not to reach for things or move too quickly.

“I have my license number memorized,” Brown said. “Why would I instinctively have ever thought that I needed to memorize my license number? There’s those little things like that that may seem so frivolous but they’re so much a part of what I have to do to feel (safer) in the event I have encounters with officers.”

When Mwaniki got his first car, his father warned him to be careful. His father was worried someone might think Mwaniki had stolen it because it was a “nice car.”

“We’ve seen black people do (everything) right and still end up dead,” he said. “The most hurtful part is you can never walk around with very much certainty. You can’t take any situation for granted because the violence is almost random.”

Brown believes bias might be part of the issue with police brutality.

He knows there are good cops who are “working hard to change this narrative” but believes that “bad eggs” exist in every department.

Brown knows officers must have continuing education but wonders about the content.

“How much of that is focused on diversity and understanding culture and systems theory,” he asked.

He suggests that having a different mindset could go a long way in police/community relations.

He thinks cops should be approachable, be kind, be honorable and remember they are human beings like everyone else and the badge does not give them leave to mistreat others.