News & Events

Overcoming my implicit racial bias has been a process

Written by Lauren Embrey, Contributor

From as early as 3 months old, I was cared for by an African-American woman. Her name was Reggie Kelley. She stayed at the house all day through dinner and into the night if my parents had a party.

Reggie had two uniforms in the utility room closet: white for daytime and black for nighttime. Reggie's husband's name was Papa. Papa would come over to our house on those party evenings and leave with her. Reggie drove the old company Cadillac my dad gave her and she wouldn't let Papa drive it.
This one particular evening when I was in my 20s, I was riding with them, and I wanted Papa to sit in the front seat. I offered that to him, thinking it was very kind and forward-thinking of me. I wanted to show him we were equals.

Lauren Embrey and Reggie Kelley

He said, "No thank you, Miss Embrey." I asked him again, same answer, and again, with more persistence. Still "No." He sat in the back seat, behind me. I never understood why he said no.
Nearly 20 years later and early in my leadership at the Embrey Family Foundation, I attended a workshop on white privilege with the organization Race Forward. I knew I had cultural and societal advantages as a wealthy white woman, but I didn't know exactly how.

At this workshop, I first learned of implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the ways of thinking and behaving that are taught to us as children, belief systems so deeply ingrained that,  even as adults, they steer our decisions and our behaviors at a level below conscious awareness.

As I reflected on this, I remembered what happened that night with Papa and told the facilitator. She didn't pause. "Of course he wouldn't, Lauren. If he had been caught sitting in the front seat with a white person behind him, he would have been lynched."

Papa Kelley and Reggie Kelley

Lynched? In the 1980s? But Papa grew up in the early 1900s; he lived through Jim Crow, the murder of Emmett Till, the violence that surrounded desegregation and the civil rights movement. I knew she was right. It was like someone punched me in the chest. How could I be so ignorant?

So I took Harvard University's Implicit Bias Test that measures the strength of associations between concepts (for example, black people, white people) and evaluations (good, bad, etc.). My result: a strong automatic preference for white people. With this new awareness of bias, I decided to change.
During the next few years, the Embrey Family Foundation initiated staff and community conversations, sought counsel from experts and refocused part of our financial commitment toward the work of racial equity. One of our most important investments was the 2013 launch of Dallas Faces Race. This forum brings together nonprofit organizations to actively build their capacity to address racial equity and collaborate to make change.

Race matters, and the way we talk about race matters now more than ever. We must change the narrative, the one learned as children, and the one that continues today. Each of us can be part of that solution, and it starts by understanding our biases and the words we use.

A few days ago, I took the implicit bias test again. My result: no automatic preference for one race over the other. This is a process; I was born in Texas in the 1950s, and I was brought up in the culture of that time. I know I must continue to challenge my innate belief systems to open my world.

Facing implicit bias is a journey that requires courage, honesty and love. Dallas is on this journey as well. Will you join us?

Lauren Embrey is the president of the Embrey Family Foundation and chief executive of Embrey Interests Ltd. in Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Website: embreyfdn.org