The Biases You Grow Up With

When I was at my mom’s house over the holidays, there was a 7-generation genealogy chart taped to the wall, and I got such a kick out of studying it. She’s so smart about how she had it designed — she made sure all the still-living people had the biggest photos, so that the grandkids could see themselves easily and picture how they fit in to this big group.

I was especially interested in those earliest generations, the oldest people on the chart. The chart lists their names, birth dates and cities, and death dates and cities. On my mom’s side, half of those original eight couples came from families who had been here since the country was founded. The city names are familiar to me — lots of East Coast and New England spots that I’ve lived near — places like Pound Ridge in Westchester, NY; Providence, RI; Orange, VT; Fairfield, CT. The other half were Mormon immigrants, coming from England, Ireland, and Wales. After getting to America, they would eventually cross the country with wagon trains, or take Ship Brooklyn from New York to San Francisco.

I knew most of that info already. A lot of family history has been researched and recorded on my mom’s side (Mormons love genealogy!), and I’d heard many of their names and stories.

My dad’s side is more mysterious to me. The places listed for the earliest generation? Two couples are from the South — Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama. And six couples are from Germany — mostly Jewish communities in Bavaria. 

I had heard about the German Jews in my ancestry, but the Southern connection was totally news to me, and as I studied the chart I had a realization: The two main biases I grew up with were against the South and against Germany.

That’s right, I grew up learning to be biased against a full half of my ancestry.

Crazy, right?

I’m sure I was at least vaguely aware of these biases as a kid, but didn’t really examine them until I went to college. During my college years I had the chance to visit my sister Rachel and her husband Paul. They are a military family and have lived all over the place, including several years in the South and several years in Germany. I visited them in both of those places, and I remember being aware before each trip, that I didn’t think fairly about either place.

I remember trying to figure out where I’d picked up these biases. In both cases, I concluded it was American culture — it was history classes and movies and books where the “bad guys” were always Germans and the “backwards folks” were always Southern. It seems American culture in the 1980s had not let either place move past their worst point in history.

Lucky for me, it was not difficult to spot those particular biases and recognize that my opinions of Germany and of the South were incorrect. I remember feeling embarrassed and apologetic, and then also realizing I didn’t actually know anyone from Germany or the South (at that time), and wasn’t sure where I should direct my apologetic energy. I also remember wanting to learn more about both places, in an attempt to replace the inaccurate information in my head. And of course, this was long before I knew about my German and Southern ancestry (I mean, I just learned about the Southern ancestry last month!).

Because those biases weren’t based on anything personal or concrete, I didn’t find them difficult to discard. I wonder now if this was especially easy for me to do because my brain was still young and forming?

Until I studied the genealogy chart, I hadn’t thought about those biases in a long, long time. They feel like something that was part of another life. I wonder how I would feel if I had learned about my Southern + German roots and hadn’t dealt with those biases already. Would I be in denial? Would I feel shame?

The chart came to mind again on Monday as we were talking about the racism that people grow up with and don’t always recognize. I’ve also been thinking about how racism and bias are taught to new generations as I watch the response from the Covington Catholic School community and families, which from my point of view has been wholly inappropriate.

It made me curious — do you feel like you recognize your biases? Or at least some of them? Have you ever taken the Harvard implicit bias test?

If you have older kids, do you think they could identify your biases? If you have been able to acknowledge a particular bias, were you also able to overcome it? Or change your thinking? I’d love to hear your stories.

40 thoughts on “The Biases You Grow Up With”

  1. Based on who people tend to vote for in the South, I strongly maintain my bias of the South. (Thanks Majority Leader McConnell, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Marsha Blackburn, and so on and so forth….).

    While I realize only individuals vote and there are signs of change, as a whole I wish the South would prove me wrong about it’s overarching values system, which seems to promote latent white supremacy, homophobia and disdain for the postpartum lives of the underprivileged.

    1. Hi Lena, I wanted to share something I noticed while reading your comment – it seems to me that you, perhaps unintentionally, generalized “people in the South” when I think you may have meant “a majority of *white* Southern voters” and in doing so, erased the voices and democratic actions of people of color, and African American Southerners in particular.

      As a white woman raised in New England and currently living in the South, I’m continuously how the values of white supremacy manifest all over the country (Boston has the largest black-white wealth gap in the country, Oregon is now the only state in the country with non-unanimous juries based on anti-Semitic history, as just two examples) and the more that we continue to perpetuate the belief that the rest of the country is “better than” the South, the longer it will take to address and dismantle the white supremacy (latent and overt) that exists throughout this country.

      1. Indeed, I can agree with you Jen and Design Mom. As I note, individual voters make individual decisions. But the majority electorate of the South continues to choose overt bigots to represent them. That fact tells a very meaningful story about the values of the voting majority populous there. And it can’t be ignored.

        Sadly, racism is found in every corner of society. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, overt signs of racism are routinely shamed – but it is alive and well. Racism hasn’t declined over time, it’s just adapted.

        1. As a born-and-bred Southerner, I am trying very hard to not be offended by your broad-brush comments about bigotry among Southerners. And I do find it ironic that your comments condemning such bigotry are both perpetuating the stereotypes about bigoted Southerners *and* deriding the values of those of us who live here. Comments like yours are equally as biased as those of the people you condemn. And I can’t ignore that.

          Are there Southerners who are racists? Yup. Are there Midwesterners and New Englanders who are also racists? Sure. Heck, Steve King keeps getting elected in Iowa’s 4th! The southern United States does not own the corner on racism and bigotry, and many (if not most) who live here are not racist bigots.

          Just because someone wins an election does not mean that a huge majority of that person’s constituents voted for him/her. Donald Trump is a perfect example of that, as he earned only 46.2% of the popular vote (2.1% less than Hillary Clinton) but if you need more data points, then keep reading. McConnell won his last election with 56.2% of the vote, Graham with 55.3%, Hyde-Smith with 53.6%, Cotton with 56.5%, Rick Scott of FL with 50.1%, and David Perdue of GA with 52.89%. (I specifically chose senators, since that gives a more accurate representation of the statewide vote than a representative, whose votes come from a small geographic area of his/her state.)

          Voter Suppression is a very real and systematic issue, especially in the southern USA. I suppose that technically, it’s accurate for you to say that “…the majority electorate of the South continues to choose overt bigots…” However, the majority of the electorate is NOT the majority of those who should be able to vote. In Georgia alone, former Sec of State Brian Kemp (who was also the Republican gubernatorial candidate) oversaw the improper purging of over 300,000 ELIGIBLE voters from the rolls and indefinitely suspended over 50,000 registrations {70% non-white}. According to final tallies, Kemp had 54,723 more votes than Stacey Abrams. Those purges and suspensions likely had a very real effect on the outcome of the election.

          If voter suppression were stopped, elections in the South would have very different outcomes. If gerrymandered districts were fixed, I suspect even more would change. Would that change Washingtonian politics? Perhaps. Would it change the prejudiced outlook that the entire South is racist? I sure hope so. Because while there are definitely bigoted people here, not all of us fit that description. I would hazard to guess that not even the majority of us do.

          1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Julie.

            Though proud of where I’m from (which I think everyone should be), I’ve always felt some inadequacy being from the South. I thought about moving after college, but then I thought, why should I move? And if all of us who “aren’t the norm” move, then nothing will change. So while Lena sits back in her lair judging from afar, I’ve been over here being a liberal atheist in Texas. In these last 20 years, I’ve seen large metropolitan areas in the state go from red to blue, and I’m proud to be apart of that.

          2. *a part

            :) I’m sure that, and any other small spelling or grammatical mistake, will automatically put me back in uneducated hick status. Gee golly.

          3. Kristin: <3

            Summer, I'm a fairly liberal (would have been considered moderate not too long ago) JEW, so I feel 'ya on being different from "the norm." I never gave any consideration to moving away because why should I. Just add that to the list of ways I'm not like all the other kids. I am hopeful though, that the times, they are a changin'. I see it around here. I think it scares those who seek to suppress minority voters, similar to how those challenging Jim Crow laws during the Civil Rights movement scared people seeking to prevent equal rights for people of all races.

    1. As a Mormon, I know that many of the same biases against the South, are also held against religious groups (like Mormons or Catholics). But I think it’s a lot less accepted to openly claim bias against a religious group.

  2. I grew up 20 minutes from Covington, lived 5 years in San Francisco, and moved to the South (Tennessee) one year ago. Bias based on geography is very much on my mind all the time!

    I will never deny the prevalence of racism in the South or anywhere else.

    But I have also met great people trying to undo systemic oppression in the South. Guess where the birth of the Civil Rights movement was? Where the majority of Black Americans live? Where the majority of poor Americans live? The South has huge and historical moments of progression. Stacey Abrams may not have won Georgia, but she was really, really close. It frustrates me to see comments like the above when many voters in the South have likely been prevented from voting or faced other systemic oppression that has largely left them feeling left out of a system that has ignored, harmed, and killed them in the past.

    And at the same time, it’s hard for me to ignore the rampant displacement that has happened in the Bay Area, almost all of which is happening to poor communities of color. Sometimes the moral superiority of liberals (I include myself in this) seems hypocritical to me. (And Gabby, this is in no way a jab at you. Thank you for posting this – I so enjoy reading the comments to posts like these from other readers.)

  3. Wow. At least you give the Germans a break. I grew up in the South and I knew there was racism. Imagine my surprise when I moved to other parts of the country and saw racism and prejudice there too. It’s easier to look down on the South than work on the problems in your own back yard. But hey, if it makes you feel better, go ahead. Everyone else does.

  4. Gabby, Ha, this is like a version of the AeroMexico commercial. However I will point out that your bias is towards the South’s cultural belief system and most likely not towards an actual Southerner. Obviously, this is very different than racial bias. But I totally love how you think outside the box and are willing to apply the same litmus tests to yourself.

    I will admit that my biases have sadly gotten worse over the last two years. I used to hardly vote and if I bothered, voted Republican. I never cared what party a person belonged to or even discussed politics. Something in me clicked hard during this last election though. The encouragement of hate speech, racism, homophobia & misogyny, the slander of science, and the normalization of lying and gaslighting are things I cannot believe are supported blindly by party affiliation or cultural familiarity. I still haven’t gotten over that GM article. As to your query, I have to honest in admitting that we thought it would not be a prudent decision for our child to apply to universities in the South and parts of the Midwest based on the current cultural situation. I’m sad that I even had to type that.

    1. “However I will point out that your bias is towards the South’s cultural belief system and most likely not towards an actual Southerner.”

      Honestly, I think the bias I was taught was more vague than that. To me, it seems like the version of America I grew up in looked down on the South, but the reasons why were never very clear to me. I mean, as a kid, I don’t think I could have even told you anything about the South. For example, I know I had no idea that certain foods I loved were part of the Southern Cooking tradition. And I didn’t even know anyone from the South. The bias was more along the lines of: I’m pretty sure I don’t like the South, but don’t ask me why, it’s just a feeling I have.

      I’m happy that by the time I began my twenties, I figured out that I could discard that bias and did so.

  5. My daughter has been serving a mission in Georgia/South Carolina and has had a hard time with the Confederate flags and Trump support in the small towns where she’s lived. It’s been broadening for her (and our entire family) to learn to love these people so different from how she was raised.

    Some of the Germany prejudice is definitely felt with older generations–when my husband and his siblings served missions to Germany, Japan, and Italy (and then another one to Japan), his grandma just felt like they were all going to the Axis enemy. I feel as younger Americans we may pass on 9/11 terrorism prejudice to the next generation, or depending on our stance on immigration, some of that bias.

    But where did your mom order the genealogy chart? That’s awesome!

    1. “I feel as younger Americans we may pass on 9/11 terrorism prejudice to the next generation”

      Oh totally. I’m sure that’s happening right this minute. Not good.

  6. Honestly, I have a bias against men. I was a victim of a crime as a child and then there is just being female in general and now I definitely have a bias against men. Recently, I was at a mall where the food court was next to an indoor playground and there was a man sitting by himself and occasionally he’d glance over at the kids. It would be impossible not to! I swear, I almost called the cops on some poor guy taking a lunch break. But that’s my bias baggage. I try to keep it in check but I can’t ever totally disregard it and I haven’t figured out yet how to handle it with my girls.

  7. Hi Gabby – That’s a beautiful chart. Do you know where your mom might have found the template for it? I’d love to make one.

  8. This is such an interesting conversation! I teach literature at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. I frequently teach Appalachian Lit, and one of the first units has to do with persistent myths and biases about Appalachia and Appalachians. We learn to ask “who’s telling this story? How do they stand to benefit from this portrayal?” Turns out thinking of Appalachians as hillbillies dates back to the post-Civil War decades…right about the time railroad and coal companies were claiming prior right over Appalachians’ land. Anyway, food for thought. Many of our biases are serving somebody’s agenda. It’s good to be aware of that.

    1. Jana, have you watched Anthony Bourdain’s (RIP) West Virginia episode?! YOU (and everyone) MUST!!! It’s in this last season and (I think) does such an excellent job.

  9. A bias incident happened this week that punched me in the stomach. A beautiful couple with a nineteen month old child was asked to get off a plane from Florida to Michigan before it embarked because supposedly customers complained that they had body odor! They are clean, normal, and it was a lie! I imagine that some devious anti-Semites decided to use the old “Jews smell” canard and fabricated that complaint.
    The airline told them they would give them their luggage but they didn’t take it off the plane! Including their car seat and stroller. They gave them a hotel voucher for the night and a flight for the next day.
    They are traumatized and angry. And so am I.

    1. Getting kicked off a plane because someone stinks doesn’t happen often … in fact, it doesn’t happen often enough. I think it more likely that you are reading something into this incident that isn’t there and that it has nothing to do with antisemitism. There are a couple of other more likely possibilities for some people to complain about a couple with a baby having an offensive odor. For some of us, all young children smell bad, and no its not just the smells you’d expect, its the products that are used on children, its the chemicals in the body washes they use and even the very clothing they wear. This goes for adults as well, who think being overly sweaty or smoking a cigarette, or heaven help us a pipe or cigar, just before getting on a plane in a enclosed place with a bunch of other people is okay (flying out of Vegas used to be torture and flying in Europe even worse). Then there are all the perfumes, colognes, body sprays, etc that add up. The average person puts on 15 different competing scents just getting dressed, between showering and what they’ve used to clean their clothes. Then there’s the build up of smells on their jackets because they don’t get washed as often as regular clothing. I’ve seen the articles on this particular couple and it seems like a lot of the passengers were complaining, not just a couple of fantasy anti-semites. The first rule of body odor, is that the person suffering from it is usually the last to know … and when a group of total strangers all suddenly agree that you stink, chances are you stink. (Everybody should watch the documentary “Stink” and then go through their morning routine and write down everything you do and the scent you pile on yourselves. You’ll not only be amazed at how bad some of you smell with all those competing scents, you’ll be stunned by the number of undisclosed toxins you’re forcing your body to filter and anyone around you to endure.)

  10. Twenty-six years ago my husband and I moved from Oklahoma (where we both grew up) to Tennessee. I figured Tennessee couldn’t be that much different than Oklahoma, but from our perspective it definitely was. We arrived just in a time for a big local controversy over whether the next county over ought to be flying the Confederate flag from the county courthouse. We were aghast.

    We spent the first two of our four years there really disliking Tennessee, easily finding fault with the culture and the people. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not, but after those first two years, we started looking for what was good about where we were, and there was a lot.

    It’s so easy to fall back on stereotypes and decide in advance what you think of something, someplace, or someone. The harder path is try to look for the good, seek common ground, and move forward from there. That doesn’t mean Tennessee is perfect but then no place really is.

    As for bias in general, and especially implicit bias, I’m working hard at recognizing this in myself. Our culture makes prejudice and bias feel normal. We have to work at thinking and behaving differently.

  11. I’m listening to the newest episode of Armchair Expert right now (Dax Shepard’s podcast – love it!!) and he’s got Bret Weinstein on. He’s an evolutionary bioligisthe topics they’re discussing are all implicit-bias related – you should check it out!

  12. Design Mom: “It made me curious — do you feel like you recognize your biases? Or at least some of them?”

    Lena: “Yes, I have biases.”

    Design Mom and Design Mom Readers: “Ewww, Lena has biases. How ignorant!”

    Lena: “Thanks, Design Mom!”

  13. “That’s right, I grew up learning to be biased against a full half of my ancestry.”

    TOTALLY. For me, it was the word haole. White people. My mom, basically.

    My dad was Chinese/Hawaiian, and his family strongly embodies cultural traditions and daily living. There’s a deep mistrust of outsiders in general, and white people in particular. I don’t think they really got over their disappointment of him choosing to marry my mom. It’s totally racist, but presented with a vibe of safety and protection of the culture. I grew up bitterly disappointed in my paler skin and brown, fine hair. It’s not just that they think they’re better than white people. They KNOW they’re better; they cite work ethic and discipline, obedience, resourcefulness, familial loyalty and respect, cuisine… 9_9

    My dad died when I was 9, and I was raised by my mom but still see my dad’s family a lot. I know they love me, but they don’t have expectations that I will be anyone important or worth lauding.

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