The United States of Anxiety

I was driving north on Highway 29 to visit my parents when I heard a familiar rumbling from behind. Bikers. My body tensed up. I slowed down and moved to the right lane. And by all means, I made no eye contact.
Bikers make me anxious. They're loud. They travel in large groups. They're typically unkempt white males who wear menacing clothes. I never know when they're going to show up. Hollywood and the media portray them as outlaws and anarchists (the "good" bad guys) vs. thugs and criminals (the "bad" bad guys).  The U.S. Department of Justice describes Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs) as "highly structured criminal organizations whose members engage in activities such as violent crime, weapons trafficking and drug trafficking." The Hells Angels, Bandidos, Outlaws, and Sons of Silence are among the noted transnational criminal organizations.
99% of the motorcycle clubs, however, are comprised of law-abiding citizens, with names like Bikers Against Child Abuse and Legacy Vets. They sponsor charity rides and community activities. Here is my dilemma: If they all make noise and wear menacing clothes, how can I tell the 1% from the 99%?
Rachel Godsil, an expert on mind sciences and race, explains my anxiety as indicative of implicit bias - the automatic association of stereotypes or attitudes with particular social groups - and racial anxiety - the discomfort about the experience and potential consequences of inter-racial interactions. These two instinctive responses "can result in a negative feedback loop in which both parties' fears seem to be confirmed by the behavior of the other."
My implicit bias regarding bikers folds in with my racial anxiety toward white alpha males. Such bias reduced my compassion in the aftermath of the gang war that occurred in Waco, where nine men died. I judged these bikers for being bad husbands and fathers who spent Sunday afternoon with their bros at the Twin Peaks "breastaurant" on the outskirts of town. I was critical that media and law enforcement portrayed these thugs as somehow better than the protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore.
Racial anxiety, according to Godsil, causes people to make 911 calls that lead to the deaths of innocent Black men and women like Jonathan Ferrell, Tamir Rice, Kathryn Johnston, and John Crawford III.  Cops pulled the triggers (in all cases multiple times), but it started by someone who was anxious and fearful enough of Black people to make the call in the first place. In all cases, the callers were under no direct or imminent threat from the respective college football star, 12-year old boy, 92-year old grandmother, and young father. Their anxiety set off a chain of events resulting in innocent people losing their lives.
We must exercise conscious actions to override implicit bias through direct and indirect inter-group contact. Simple as that. For example, I didn't have to look far to meet an actual biker. The Warriors Motorcycle Club sponsors my dad's community garden and his pal, Mr. Wayne Worden (the club's chaplain) is a barrel-chested man with shoulder length hair and a long gray beard. Mr. Wayne regularly shows up to help my parents tend their garden. Knowing him helps to dissipate my anxiety. This picture of my parents sitting astride Mr. Wayne’s hog assures that my fears are unfounded.

As a country we are in a constant state of anxiety. Our segregated communities and the media perpetuate stereotypes that cause damage to individual and collective psyches. Take the first step to turn this around. Identify your own implicit biases and anxieties, and take one step to address them. You can contribute through personal action and help make our country a safer place for all.


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

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For more information on implicit bias and racial anxiety, please check out Rachel Godsil's article on "Breaking the Cycle."

Please take one or more of the Implicit Association Tests, developed by Harvard University, to assess your own biases and anxieties.

Kevin will be facilitating a training on Building Cultural Capacity for PowerSpeaking on June 5th in Redwood City, CA.

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