The Optimized Doctor

Examining bias


I have an automatic preference for white people over black people. This isn’t my opinion; rather, it is my implicit bias test result. I didn’t believe it at first. Trying hard to not be biased, I took the test again and received the same outcome. My reaction – disbelief – is typical for those like me: White people who believe they are good human beings. I might be good, but that doesn’t mean I’m free of bias or exonerated from the harm being inflicted on people of color.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

We’ve all watched in horror the acts of violence against blacks in the news. I was shocked and disgusted. It was easy to believe, however, that I am in no way complicit in the injustice and racism I was watching. I think I’m fair and without prejudice. I have never intentionally discriminated against someone. Wanting to help, I listened to my black colleagues, staff, and patients. What I learned made me uncomfortable.

Through all this news, I’d said little to my colleagues and friends. I cannot identify with how a black person has felt recently. What if I said the wrong thing or caused offense? The safe option is to say nothing. I learned that this is a common reaction and the least helpful. The advice from one black colleague was simple: “Just ask us.” Instead of ignoring the issue, she advised me to say: “I wonder what this experience has been like for you. Would you like to share?” And, if you mean it, to add, “I stand with you.” The latter should be followed by “What can I do to help?” Or, more powerfully, “What have I done that makes me complicit?”

Some of these conversations will be uncomfortable. If you want to help, then sit with that. Feeling uncomfortable might mean you are beginning to understand.

I also heard about the excellent book “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, PhD. In it, she argues that it is difficult for white people to talk about racism because of a tendency to react with defensiveness, guilt, and sometimes anger.

Many of the chapters in the book were easy to read because they didn’t apply to me: I don’t get angry in equity, inclusion, and diversity meetings. I don’t resent affirmative action programs. But then Dr. DiAngelo got me: I believed because I’m a good person and I have no intention of being racist, I’m absolved. Her argument was enlightening. Like all white people in the United States, I have benefited from white privilege. Yes, I’ve worked hard, but I also grew up in a white family with a college-educated father. That alone afforded me academic and financial advantages, which pushed me ahead. I’ve benefited from the status quo.

I have also failed to speak up when white friends carried on about how unnecessary affirmative action programs have become. I’ve sat with sealed lips when I’ve heard comments like “As a white male, it’s a lot harder to get into prestigious schools now.” Having no intention to harm doesn’t matter; plenty of harm is done unintentionally.

I also believed that because I have good intentions, I have no racial bias. I was wrong. The test I took online is an excellent tool to combat this blind spot. It was created by Harvard researchers and is available to everyone: Take a Test. It asks you to categorize faces as good or bad and records your tiny reaction times. Based on these and other questions, it provides feedback on your personal biases.

I was surprised that I have an implicit preference for white people over black people. That’s the point. Most of us are unaware of our biases and falsely believe we are free of them. I encourage you to take the test and learn about yourself. If the result makes you uncomfortable, then sit with it. Try not to be defensive, as I was, and accept that, even if you are a good person, you can become a better one.

Based on what I’ve learned and heard in the last few weeks, I’ve committed to a few things: To acknowledge the harm done to my black and brown colleagues and my complicity even by acts of omission. To not avoid uncomfortable feelings or uncomfortable conversations. As a leader, to use my organizational status to advocate. To stand by my partners of color not only in dramatic one-time marches but also against the everyday perpetrators of microaggressions. To create a safe space and invite my colleagues, staff, friends, and patients to share.

Standing up against racism is all our responsibility. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Dr. Benabio is director of healthcare transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. He has no disclosures related to this column. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at [email protected].

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