Every breath full of particles, every blink caused by stinging eyes, and the sharp taste of ash every time mouths opened was a constant reminder to all of the massive fires occurring in Northern California. Many came home to cancelled sports practice. Some came home to news that friends and family lost their homes to the flames. Others awakened to the fact that the fire consumed the lives and livelihoods of people in their own backyard. The people in the fire live near us. We can easily relate to them. They are just like us. 42 innocent lives lost. 240,000 acres gone.
I am thankful that I am a part of a community that supports our neighbors, but we need to recognize and thereby begin to address the role that unconscious bias plays in giving. This barrier cripples our capacity to empathize with and help others and to create a positive difference in our larger world.
Unconscious bias is how people’s background, and cultural context influence their judgments about people. It is harder to relate to people thousands of miles away than our neighbors who have a lot more in common with us.
I am proud of our school for organizing a drive to help support the 100,000 people that were forced out of their homes. I am proud to be a part of a community that gives, because giving, no matter how small, no matter the cause, is the most important thing that anyone can do. In addition, I do not believe that Piedmont is obligated to contribute to every natural disaster around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder, why now? Why did our community choose to help these people in particular?
Every week for history class we are assigned to research a current event and then report what we learned to the class. Every week someone presents a story that addresses suffering caused by a natural disaster somewhere in the world; an earthquake in Mexico, Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Irma. One of the more recent ongoing horror is occurring in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria swept through on September 20th, creating a path of extreme destruction and overturning the lives of 3.4 million people. Many inhabitants are not getting enough aid. Some are lacking access to water for bathing and drinking. Why did the school, why did I, not give to this cause?
One possible reason why the school decided to give to the fires and not the people in Puerto Rico could have been distance. The fires were so close that our community was shrouded in a cloud of smoke; a constant reminder of the suffering nearby. The hurricane in Puerto Rico, even though it displaced many more people, because of distance seemed very out of reach. It is easier for me to forget about the hurricane because, unlike the fire, I was not choking on the waste created by its destruction every time I stepped outside.
Unconscious bias affected our community’s decision about who we donate to. The people in Puerto Rico, although members of a U.S. territory, are on a separate island, primarily speak a different language, have a distinct culture, and might look different than many people on the mainland. Unconscious bias plays a role in why we feel disconnected from the world. I believe that if the people in Puerto Rico were easier for me to personally relate to then I would have had an increased chance of reaching out to help them.
When I read about natural disasters in the news in the future I want to feel solidarity and hope instead of guilt and detachment. I need to experience full awareness and an empathy that will push me to take action. I crave the ability to be strong enough to face the horrors of reality and make a difference. I wish for a world where my peers and I give without the influence of unconscious bias.