Helping Others Is Not Universal

By Domonic Rollins

For many of us, the holiday season is a time where we give back and try to help others in need. Recently, I had an experience that reminded me that helping others is not universal. I take the subway — affectionately called the “T” in the metro Boston area — to work every day, from Fields Corner to Harvard Square. Anyone who rides mass transit knows that you can observe a lot. During my 30-minute commute, I primarily notice the changing of a racial tide as I leave my neighborhood that is mixed race and travel into and through neighborhoods that are mostly white. This is common in many cities. Beyond the tidal change, I try to be aware of other things happening on the T, as it is an incredible public space where people have to interact.

As I was traveling to work recently, ready to exit at Harvard Square, I noticed an older black man standing at the door with his backpack partially unzipped, me right behind. I also noticed holes in his back pockets. Assessing this man, to me, his clothes looked slightly tattered and disheveled, with earbuds in listening to something. I also noticed he wore a watch and glasses, yet I didn’t say anything to him about his unzipped backpack. The markers I observed on this man were inconclusive. Feeling somewhat confused, yet dutiful, I sized up this older black man trying to determine whether I could or should say anything about his backpack. 
The same day as I was leaving work, walking towards the T station at Harvard Square I noticed a white woman, likely leaving work I thought to myself, dressed professionally and put together with her backpack partially unzipped. I alerted her. With a passing voice as I walked by with distance between us, I said simply, “Excuse me, your backpack is unzipped.” Immediately, I felt the weight of my inaction from the morning in the pit of my stomach. Joining my feeling of guilt was the recollection that a couple of months prior someone kindly pointed out to me as I exited the T that my backpack was unzipped. 
Despite knowing and engaging differences every day in my job, I realized racial bias still affects me. Surely, in this instance there are perfectly logical explanations like “He had earbuds in, what was I supposed to do?” or “It’s so early, I’m barely awake to be speaking to others on the train.” These and other excuses are available to explain away my behavior. Yet, at the core I know that race, perceived gender, aesthetic, and presentation contributed to my (lack of) kindness. 
For educators, and those alike who are on the front lines of helping others, there is a need to deeply consider what biases we have that create barriers to our helping. Questions — Under what conditions do I help? Whom do I help or look favorably upon? How does who I help matter in their success or outcomes? — must be asked as part of our effort to create equitable environments.

Our tendency is to help people who to us meet certain requirements, whether or not we know we have set them. Unknowingly, we expect people to “show up” or “be” a certain way to receive our help. This tendency prevents honest reflection and thinking on the biases we carry. Might I have helped if the black man with the unzipped backpack looked more put together? Of course, there are other questions to ask and other conditions to consider. Yet, without deep thinking, we will continue to disproportionately help some and not others. 
Ultimately, I know social interactions in public spaces like the subway where a lot is happening are hard to make sense of. But, unconscious bias permeates everything; reflecting on how it impacts us in everyday ways can enhance our educational practice.

Domonic A. Rollins, Ph.D., is HGSE’s inaugural Senior Diversity & Inclusion Officer.