Opinion

Op-ed: Bias and racism pervade society, including in Berkeley, and may happen unconsciously

Gibor Basri and Jessica Broitman hike Claremont Canyon every morning
Gibor Basri and Jessica Broitman hiking Claremont Canyon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Gibor Basri and Jessica Broitman have been married more than 40 years and have a 24-year-old-son. Basri is a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and the vice-chancellor for equity and inclusion. Broitman is a psychoanalyst who runs a non-profit, low-fee psychotherapy clinic in the PresidioAs a biracial couple (Basri is Jamaican/Iraqi/Jewish and Jessica is white and Jewish), they have seen prejudice and bias first-hand, even in Berkeley. Berkeleyside asked them to write about their experiences. 

It has been both disturbing and fascinating to follow the reactions to the incident at the Elmwood Café on Jan. 29 involving the “socio-political comedian” W. Kamau Bell, who blogged about being told to “git” or “scram,” or words to that effect, as he was meeting some of his wife’s friends at an outside table.

We can both easily imagine how Mr. Bell and his wife felt, having been in similar circumstances at many times in our lives. The remarks in Berkeleyside’s comments section contain a spread of opinions from Berkeley folks about what was reality and what was perception. The comments operate from a variety of assumptions about Mr. Bell, the employee who tapped on the window, the café owner, and the racial climate in Berkeley and the United States.

Gibor would like to offer his opinion as a highly educated and respected African-American man who actually works on issues of racial climate, trying to bring light rather, than heat, to a very charged issue. Jessica would like to offer her perspective as the white wife of Gibor for more than 40 years who lives the experience every day.

Gibor starts from his own experience (which is similar for almost every black man he knows, regardless of their origin or station in life). Race hangs in the air, even in a place like Berkeley, although it certainly varies in its loudness from place to place.

We feel it is very hard for most white people to see more subtle forms (and probably harder yet for those who themselves decry racism and work hard not to be tainted by it). It is unavoidable, given the history and structure of our society, as well as the obviousness of the primary visible markers used to define “black” folks. As can be tested for yourself at the Harvard Implicit Bias website, bias lurks in almost everyone (including us) who grew up in America, certainly including black as well as white folks (along with everyone else).

Jessica had almost no appreciation of the ubiquitous nature of racism and the incredible unseen advantages of white privilege until she and Gibor married, despite growing up in New York City. Our difficult and delayed wedding itself was a stark confirmation of the depths of explicit bias that had always been present in her family.

Here is one simple example of that bias we experience regularly: we have learned (without ever explicitly discussing it) to send Jessica to check in at hotels rather than to both appear at the front desk – things just proceed more smoothly that way.

Sometimes it is less subtle. One morning Gibor in 2006 was cleaning out leaves from the second-floor flowerpots at our home near UC Berkeley. Two police cars suddenly appeared. The officers jumped out, covering Gibor and frantically getting Jessica out the door to “safety.” They told her that the house was undergoing a “hot prowl” and they could protect her. After Jessica made it clear to the police that the man on the balcony was her husband, the officers apologized, noting that someone who had just driven by had called them in. Can we be sure that the driver would have called the cops if Gibor wasn’t black? Not completely, but we added it to our long catalog of very suspicious incidents.

We moved to Berkeley from the Piedmont /Oakland border 21 years ago with the hopes that we might spare our son our regular experience of being asked whether we were lost when walking together in our neighborhood park. This is something that never occurred when Jessica walked alone; happily it has not happened in Berkeley.

Jessica has yet to be given a ticket in the Bay Area although she doesn’t drive as carefully as Gibor; Gibor has a large collection of “driving while black” violations, all very minor (like going 28 mph in a 25 mph zone, or failing to put his foot down when executing a motorbike stop).

When away from Berkeley, Gibor has been subject to any number of incidents that are difficult to explain except as motivated by racism, and some which were explicitly identified as such by their perpetrators. One such example was being asked to move along in 2014 when he stopped to make a phone call while driving a car in a residential neighborhood in Florida. This is a very common reality for black men, and obviously it gets much worse when class is not acting in the opposite direction.

It is in such an atmosphere that Mr. Bell made his report and interpretation. This is the same atmosphere that makes Ferguson so potent. That case is much more serious, of course, but the root cause is the same. It is possible that the employee involved at the Elmwood Café did not consciously mean anything racial by her actions, and perhaps she would have acted the same if Mr. Bell were not black. As in the balcony incident described above, she was incited to her action by another customer, who might actually have been the party more activated by racial stereotyping. It would certainly have produced a better outcome if she had first investigated whether her assumptions had any validity.

What is clear to us is that black men are subject to such incidents more readily. It is hard for someone who has not experienced a sense of pervasive negative stereotyping based on appearance alone to appreciate how incredibly wearing it can be.

Black men are not the only set of folks to be treated that way, but they have a particularly long and egregious history of belonging to such a class.

We can easily imagine the embarrassment, indignation and anger Kamau Bell and his wife felt when subjected to “othering” when simply enjoying their lunch. We both feel the sting of having the color of one’s skin used as an indication of worthiness. We both feel (in different ways) the damage of being made to feel, explicitly and implicitly, unwelcome for an arbitrary and undeserved reason.

Mr. Bell’s concerns are quite easy for us to understand, and his bringing them to the attention of a broader audience does serve the purpose of helping to raise awareness of how these kinds of incidents can suddenly happen in surprising ways and circumstances.

In the end, perception is reality for the recipients of these interactions because of the pervasive realities that provide their context.

This is also why “color blindness” is a dangerous form of racism. It is easy for someone with invisible privilege to say they don’t see color; it is impossible for a person of color to not generally be seen that way (and to know it). This is independent of whether people want to, or can admit to, their privilege and unconscious (or conscious) biases.

The discussion that Mr. Bell’s post has engendered is a valuable one, even in a liberal bastion like Berkeley. We will have a very hard time eliminating racism if those tainted by its influence cannot perceive it.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Gibor Basri is the vice-chancellor for equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley. Jessica Broitman is a psychotherapist. They live in Berkeley.