Two Louisville churches, Mid-Kentucky Presbytery offer half-day workshop on implicit bias

Shawnee Presbyterian Church and Harvey Browne Presbyterian Church have worked to form what they call ‘The Beloved Community’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Veda Pendleton

LOUISVILLE — For the last 15 years, members and friends of Shawnee Presbyterian Church and Harvey Browne Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, have been working together to bridge the racial divide by forming a collaborative they call “The Beloved Community.”

On Saturday, more than 70 people in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery benefitted from that work in the form of an implicit bias workshop offered by Dr. Veda Pendleton, a ruling elder at the Harvey Browne church. Pendleton is a parent educator; diversity, equity and inclusion instructor; and the author of the book “Prepped.”

The Beloved Community members said that the multi-racial group “exists to examine their own beliefs about social justice issues within the body of Christ while seeking ways to effectively address the issues in the Louisville community. To that end, The Beloved Community has offered events that provide information and activities that allow participants to seek their own answers to social justice inequities individually and collectively.”

Implicit bias, which can be defined as the beliefs that sit in the back of our brains and inform our actions without our explicit knowledge, can be a difficult topic to discuss. During a workshop that lasted less than three hours, Pendleton worked to help participants express themselves freely, offering them a workbook with small group exercises and enough lined pages for them to record their reflections on experiences with implicit bias over the next 21 days.

The verse for the day is one Pendleton said she often wrestles with: Matthew 22:39, where Jesus’ second commandment is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“There are people in this room with power and influence,” Pendleton told the crowd gathered at Harvey Browne Presbyterian Church. “Use those as you walk through your daily lives to change things for others.”

She had two other suggestions: “Can we agree for today to be uninterested in being right?” Pendleton asked. “Can we be uninterested in thinking of ourselves as a good person? Just for couple of hours, can we suspend those?”

In the interest of transparency, Pendleton said she never thought until recently that a white person could cut her hair well because they wouldn’t understand that her hair has multiple textures. “I was wrong,” Pendleton said. “Someone recommended someone, she appeared at my house, she cut my hair — and it was wonderful.”

After a brief exercise designed to gauge the diversity of the people whom workshop participants interact with, Pendleton invited them to jot down the initials of six people they trust. She then read characteristics of people, asking participants to place a tally mark next to the initials when they aligned with the participant’s characteristics, including the same nationality or race, the same religion, similar upbringing and education level, and the same or proximate neighborhood. She then asked: “Outside of your family, who do you trust, and why?”

“I can’t tell you the impact the media has on our biases,” Pendleton said. The term “Black-on-Black crime” is “a racist statement all the way. The media choose what to report and how it’s reported,” Pendleton said. “They sensationalize crimes committed by Black people. We don’t hear about crimes committed by white people in the same way. We have to look at who is talking and who owns the news system. It’s all by design, and if we want a different product, we have to change the design of our systems.”

Pendleton prefers an approach to teaching that uses the same three-letter acronym as Critical Race Theory: Culturally Responsive Teaching.

“I use what you already know as a bridge to get to what I need to teach you,” Pendleton said. Imagine starting your time in school “knowing things weren’t designed for you and people who look like you. How do you combat that? With love. We begin to change systems and policies in place that keep Black, brown and poor people disadvantaged in every walk of life.”

Whenever Pendleton enters a department store, “I know I’m going to get followed,” she said, reminding those in attendance that “race is a social construct. It’s something that was made up.” When people in the Bible are told “not to hang out with others, it’s not because of their skin color,” Pendleton said, “but because of who they were worshiping.”

“I go back to language often because language is powerful. God spoke things into being,” she said. “Our words have the capacity to change some of our systems.”

We often talk about equal rights, but less often about equity, “which is important,” Pendleton said. “Equity means I get what I need in the way I need it when I need it.” That led to what she calls “my red shoe story.”

A friend grew up in a large family. She was the eighth of nine children, the seventh girl. “She had to wear lots of hand-me-downs,” Pendleton said, and was forced to cram her size 10 foot into the largest shoes worn by an older sister, a size 8. “She said, ‘I just made all my shoes into slides,’” Pendleton said of her friend. “Equality is everybody gets a pair of shoes. Equity is you get shoes in your size and style and preferably your color. My shoes, for the record,” Pendleton added, “are size 8½ narrow red shoes.”

Growing up, Pendleton’s brother required specially built shoes to support his flat arches. “It was an equity issue to get him the support he needed,” she said. “We both got shoes, but they were different.”

Implicit bias can have devastating effects on laws and policies in our communities, states and nation, Pendleton said. “Legislatures around the country are doing nasty stuff to human beings, passing laws that cause harm,” she said. “We have the opportunity … to say what we will live with and what we won’t, and we have to do it collectively.”

The first step to defeat implicit bias is to be honest with ourselves, Pendleton said. “The only shame is in making no effort to improve,” she said. “If your actions show anything other than the love of Christ for everyone you meet, you have fallen into sin.”

Among the strategies Pendleton offered to curb implicit bias:

  • Practice self-awareness and own your own biases.
  • Implicit bias is more likely to happen when making quick decisions. Pause before you act or respond.
  • Pay attention to bias related to age, sex, gender, race and religion. Arrest your bias with a pause and a deep breath of reflection.
  • Grow your social capital, group and circle. Get to know people of different backgrounds and cultures. Engage with them in meaningful ways that affirm them and develop a sense of belonging.
  • Be an active bystander. If you see or hear something that reinforces a racial bias, say or do something.
  • Be quick to acknowledge your own mistake.

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