I Never Learned Their Names: Understanding Implicit Bias through my Habits of Plant ID

WeedI’ve known that feathery plant with tiny green bobbles for so long. It grows between the flagstones. I’ve known the wide leafy thing that isn’t a mint, and the tiny-leaved tiny-flowered spike that grows through lawns like miniature garlands.

Bear with me here: I have a point to make.

I’ve known weeds and their patches in all my lands: the house where I grew up, the part of Pennsylvania where I went to college, and so on, across counties and countries and continents. I’ve been familiar with the weeds on exchanges and sabbaticals, through marriage, child-raising, pet-training, and divorce; and through conferences, fieldwork, and vacations. I know their foliage and gestalt, their habitats and their timing of life. I know which ones snap off with a yank or a twist, and whether that yank or twist is likely to keep them dead. I know the smell of their leaves and sometimes the taste of their seeds. My life has progressed while walking, driving, running, biking, and relaxing on their lands.

But I don’t know their names. Until recently, it had not occurred to me that they even have scientific names.

This fact is all the more astonishing because I thirst for the names of flowering plants wherever I go–in the wild, in gardens, botanic gardens, and nurseries. My favorite book as a girl was The Burgess Flower Book for Children. I collected flowers as a six-year-old. Their names provide a mental file folder into which I can slip more information about them: “Cinquefoil, blooming over there in May, has leaves with little teeth in it. Cinque means five but this has three, foil means leaves.” And the names have given me places to put the file folders: “Similar to other plants in the Rose family, or that are potentillas, or that grow low, or that have white flowers.” And with the names to refer to plants by, I can develop a narrative about them, and with that narrative, I can then interact with them: buy them at a nursery, seek for and discover them on a hike, think about them on a rainy day.

FlowerScrapbook2But the little weedy things? They actually have names?

Shocked at myself, I made the mental leap that this oversight was a textbook example of implicit bias (also called implicit stereotype). It is an example I could understand. According to Wikipedia, implicit bias “is the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group. Implicit stereotypes are influenced by experience, and are based on learned associations between various qualities and social categories, including race or gender.” I had overlooked these common weeds. I had accepted them as the furnishings around which the notable, nameable plants had grown. Likewise, I have dismissed people—individuals and entire groups of them.

And I’d better know that, don’t you think?

It wasn’t that I didn’t notice the weeds. I did notice them. I had catalogs of their attributes, more or less. Similarly, I may notice the people toward whom I have implicit biases, and I may be able to repeat something about a person or a group. But until I hold them in enough esteem to choose to learn their names (or, of course, some epithet specific to them) I am slighting their individuality, their worthiness for my interaction with them, and their value as fellow beings.

Who have I slighted by leaving them unnamed? The newspaper delivery person, the student in an apartment on my block, the Rite-Aid cashier. Only people “below” me? Not at all: professors from other types of universities or whose English isn’t very good; politicians; administrators; old or unhealthy people who cannot talk or move, who I could brush pass on my way to visit someone named. People who major in Business Management (snicker). Really. Implicit bias affects all types of categories in my life. Implicit bias is real. To recognize it is a worthy goal. To recognize it is to know when I need to be especially mindful.

Sure, stereotypes have their place. When I was a weed eradicator, it was fine to know feathery green plants with tiny baubles, and nothing more. An autistic-like concentration on the specifics of everything all the time would wear me down. But when my goal was to understand the plant diversity at our property, my oversight was a blockage.

I don’t want to move through a world of peripheral souls who if I thought about it, I surely misunderstand, and even worse, who I may be hurting by my misunderstanding. I don’t want to assume that I know their hearts, capacities, interests, limitations, and hopes.

I need to think again.

I need to call out, “Hey, what’s your name?”

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