by Patti Chang
From the Editor: Patti is a tireless worker on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, but her life isn't captured in that one phrase. She is a caring wife, mother, and a reflective thinker. We are all blessed by her reflections, so enjoy one she has chosen to share:
When I was in school, the most productive way to get printed material into my brain was by working with human readers. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have a book on tape, but generally what I wanted was not available, and getting at it was not nearly as efficient as using a competent human being who could turn directly to the page I wanted to read, skim by paragraph, and help me review information I had underlined or highlighted. It gave me experience in hiring, supervising, and occasionally firing people who simply could not do the work I needed done.
Knowing that I utilized live reading services, one day I got a call from Fred Sanders who directed the Michigan State University's disabled student service office. His request was that I take on another reader. I was already about three weeks into the term and had all the people I needed, so my answer was an immediate no. His response was that he had a really nice fellow who was in an honor society named Tower Guard, and the people in that organization were required to give a certain number of hours as volunteers. He explained that the young man he wished me to hire had tried making tapes, but because of his accent, no one could understand him. My initial no was reinforced with the thought that I have no reason to hire a reader no one could understand, and I assumed I would be part of that group. I went on my way, glad the decision was made and the conversation concluded.
It turns out that the director was nothing if not persistent. About a week later, he gave me a call and proceeded to take another tack at advancing his argument. He told me that I was taking Spanish, that this reader knew Spanish fluently, that I could certainly use good help in that area, and the director simply couldn't tell a man willing to donate service hours that he had no takers. For reasons that I don't remember now, I said yes. Perhaps it was his sheer tenacity, but I made it perfectly clear that the young man’s job was provisional and that I was making no commitment it would work out. I thought that at a very minimum I could work on my Spanish accent, which at that time was atrocious. It still is for that matter.
So it was that this kind young gentleman named Francisco who was born in Honduras of Chinese ancestry came to read for me. Interestingly I found no difficulty in understanding his accent; if anything, I had a hard time getting him to talk except when he was reading. He was one of the shyest people I knew.
I found him intelligent and quite competent. The reading sessions were pretty much what I expected, except that I noticed that he would stick around for a time after we were done, and he would find convenient excuses to drop by. This made almost no impression on me at the time, but my roommate told me that it was obvious Francisco was interested in me. I confidently replied no. I was certain that the only reason he was hanging around was that he wanted to learn English and that I was doing him a favor by patiently teaching him. I got a similar message from my then boyfriend who said that Francisco was interested, and I gave his concern all the consideration I thought it deserved, which was about zero. This was simply a working relationship, and although I might like him, I would never consider dating anyone who worked for me. It crossed lines that would make supervision difficult, and besides, they were just seeing things that weren't there.
It turns out that early on in our involvement Francisco told his brother that he was interested in me, and he made a conscious decision to wait out the then boyfriend who he was sure I would eventually break up with since he was a “jerk.” About a year into what I thought was a good working relationship after the boyfriend was history, Francisco announced that he was quitting. I was amazed; at that point he was actually getting paid, his volunteer work already having been completed. In confusion I asked him why he didn't want to work anymore, and I assured him I thought that our working relationship was going fine. His answer was clear and direct: "I am quitting because you won't go out with me as long as I work for you." I was taken aback but had to admit that what he said was true.
In looking back on that year, I realized that I was ignoring Francisco despite signs from my roommate and former boyfriend because I never envisioned myself marrying anyone other than a white man. The thought of doing anything different was inconceivable to me. I was limiting my own possibilities by the implicit biases I carried with me, ones that I simply saw as truth, the way life worked, the way things were to be. I realized that this particular bias was one that I had never thought through but had simply considered so self-evident that it required no thought.
Once I recognized my bias and decided to move beyond it, it didn’t take more than two or three dates for me to realize that I was taken with Francisco as well. But isn’t it amazing that he had to do something as dramatic as quitting his job for me to give him the slightest consideration as a romantic partner? Now, after thirty-seven years of marriage, it is hard to believe what I almost let slip away. What a cost both of us would've paid for my bias, not to mention the wonderful human beings we brought into the world, our daughter Julia and our son Johnathon.
I have taken the time to write this article because I think we often approach the idea of eliminating bias as something we do for others. But as my own case so clearly demonstrates, I am the person who benefited most from the elimination of implicit bias, and it was well worth the thinking, the soul-searching, and the challenging of what seemed unchallengeable. I now enjoy something beyond any monetary value that could be assigned. We like all couples have definitely had our ups and our downs; but our song, “Still the One,” pretty much says it all. What would we be missing if I held onto the conviction that my partner must be white?