Harry Edwards: Unless we deal with bigotry head-on, we’ll never fix the problem
Honest conversations about race, sexism and exclusion are not always easy, as CoSIDA audience hears
“We can be honest, but we can’t be right. Unconscious bias is a joke. It’s a pass for racists and gender discriminators. “
The comment from Harry Edwards during the College Sports Information Directors of America’s (CoSIDA) diversity and inclusion panel on Wednesday at National Harbor in Maryland not only attracted the attention of the room but completely shifted the conversation from conceptualizing bigotry to addressing it directly.
The panel — Edwards; Tanya Vogel, George Washington University athletic director; Undefeated writer-at-large William Rhoden; Keri Potts, ESPN’s senior director of public relations for college sports; and moderator Dave Lohse, associate athletic director at the University of North Carolina — was originally meant to focus on unconscious bias in intercollegiate athletics. But after a nearly nine-minute monologue from Edwards, the conversation got real.
Edwards hit on pertinent topics such as police brutality, sexual assault, victim shaming and institutional injustices directed at minorities. Edwards, a well-known civil rights activist and sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was not shy about expressing his disapproval of the term that he says is enabling bigotry in society.
“I find the whole concept of unconscious bias to be oxymoronic, it makes no sense, “ said Edwards. “Reality is that what’s unconscious is really in fact a conscious denial; you are looking at a situation where bias has become normalized as a consequence of values and social and cultural structures.
“There is no such thing as unconscious bias. When you are being biased, you are making a choice. If it is unconscious, then it cannot be bias and it’s just something that happens, and we all know that is not the case.”
In front of a room filled with white communication professionals from colleges and universities around the country, there was a sense that whenever Edwards spoke there was a level of discomfort that forced the audience to pay attention. And while Edwards’ words seemed to make some of the people in the room uncomfortable, no one got out of his or her seat and Edwards continued to speak candidly.
“We need to look at this for precisely and exactly what it is,“ said Edwards. “What’s unconscious about profiling black people? What’s unconscious about refusing to give women opportunities that they deserve? That’s not unconscious. That’s just misogyny. That’s just bias.“
Following Edwards, Vogel provided her sentiments. She disagreed with Edwards’ notion about attacking institutional bigotry head-on.
“No HR [human resource] representative is going to come in and say let’s talk about what a racist and misogynist you are,” said Vogel. “ I think we have to find a way to bring people in that doesn’t set off the warning bells and lets people communicate on the topic. “
After a short response by Edwards that emphasized the necessity to have honest conversations about tough issues, Rhoden interjected by briefly switching the conversation to sports and asked some rhetorical yet powerfully introspective questions to the audience.
“How many of you think that athletes that are in a stadium who can’t in good faith stand up for the national anthem are wrong? Now why do you feel that way? To me that’s beginning of a real conversation,“ said Rhoden. “How many people have had conversations about the Me Too movement? How many guys are really talking about this?”
While the panel couldn’t agree on how to approach conversations about dealing with these systematic issues in American society, they did agree that these conversations need to happen. And whether unconscious or not, they all said, the paradigms of systematic bigotry must be corrected.
“You have to define the problem, face the problem and approach it in a resolvable fashion in order to get to it,” said Edwards. “Otherwise, we will be stuck spinning our wheels where people will be having to come to conferences over racism.”