James Madison University

Dr. Allen Lewis Discusses Race and Cultural Bias in Book

By: Lori News
Posted: May 27, 2015

“When I used to teach classes on cultural competency in a rehabilitation counseling curriculum I would ask graduate students, ‘Who in this class has no biases when it comes to cultural orientation (e.g., race or ethnicity)?’ And you would be surprised how many young people would say they don’t have any bias and everybody is the same. And I can appreciate wanting to be that way, but it’s not exactly accurate,” said Health Sciences Department Head Dr. Allen Lewis.

PHOTO: Allen Lewis

This year, Lewis was interviewed on NPR’s public radio talk show With Good Reason, discussing topics from his new book We Are All Racists: The Truth about Cultural Bias. During the interview and in his book, Lewis addresses questions such as: do you think we’ve made progress when it comes to race issues? And, do you think we will ever reach a point when race concerns won’t be a part of our thinking?

Lewis bluntly says, “We are all racists. This is a true yet provocative statement.” It is not meant to be taken in the harsh, literal way; however, biologically humans are naturally biased beings. “The good news is that we can manage and sometimes overcome these biases, but we have to understand them first and know that we have them,” he explained.

With a background in disability research, one of Lewis’ research topics revolves around understanding how cultural orientation impacts the experience of being disabled. With this background and his curiosity regarding race and cultural issues since an early age, he was interested in writing a book sharing his own personal experiences about race and cultural bias as well as observations on what he calls the “black condition” (i.e., the status of the African-American community in America) and strategies to improve that.

“Originally, I was thinking about how I wanted to write a book on the black community because as I look around as an adult, I have a lot of observations on why I think there are still some challenges that the black community deals with,” Lewis said.

PHOTO: BookOn the heels of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, Lewis explained he “hit a sweet spot” and wrote the first draft of We Are All Racists, a 116 page book, in two weeks.

“The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case was another high profile judicial outcome that was polarized along racial lines, and so I was thinking ‘Why are we surprised?’ because race is such a deep-rooted bias,” he said.

To explain further, Lewis says “human beings are naturally programmed to be biased.” In his book he says, “Stereotypes and cognitive schemas are natural human processes and so is subjective reality. Subjective reality is the total of an individual’s experiences (i.e., it is reality through an individual’s eyes). It is based on life experience. Subjective reality has to do with how past experiences help us to interpret, understand, and lend meaning to the present.”

This is where the good news comes into play. As Lewis explains, animals are naturally biased creatures as well, meaning they tend to stick with their own species, and without intervention humans are no different. However, the difference is that humans have a unique volitional quality that allows us to rise above those animalistic biases and make choices that move away from what appears to be racist tendencies.

On Friday April 10th, Lewis participated in a panel that was one part of the University of Virginia’s Black Alumni Weekend. The panel featured black alumni authors. Lewis spoke about the writing process in general and briefly about his book.

Lewis explains one audience for his book, but not the only audience, is the black community. “I want black people as a community to recognize that we have a victim mentality and we need to move away from it. We need to take some proactive steps to improve the community ourselves and see some of our problems for what they really are.” However, he explains that the main purpose of writing this book is not to get people to agree with him, but to get people to think deeply about the issue of cultural bias, of which racism is one type.

“I want people to understand that cultural bias is real; it’s always going to be a part of the human experience, and we’re never going to reach a time where we are going to be without bias,” said Lewis.

When asked if he plans on writing more on the topic of race and cultural bias, Lewis said he is working on a book that will address another provocative topic concerning the integration of faith and intellect. Though he is somewhat ambivalent about whether to write it or not because parts of the book may offend some people, the book will examine the natural tension, and the possibility of peaceful coexistence between faith and intellect in the same individual and has an autobiographical aspect.

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