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NC State professor uses her experience to work for progress

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - For Blair Kelley, a history professor at N.C. State University, it’s all about getting to the next level. That means ignoring first assumptions, instincts and, often, past experiences to reach a point where real progress can be made as a society.

Consider the recent training Starbucks offered its employees.

The iconic chain closed more than 8,000 of its coffee shops nationwide on Tuesday in order to provide racial bias education. Starbucks’ methods weren’t perfect — the training wasn’t mandatory — and it speaks volumes that such action even had to be taken.

After all, it came in the wake of a viral video that showed two black men being led out of a Philadelphia Starbuck in handcuffs last month. The manager of that location, a white woman, said the men were trespassing while waiting to meet with a business partner. The incident has stained a brand that prided itself on being progressive and innovative.

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But perhaps that’s what it takes to get things started?

“It looks like the beginnings of a conversation,” Kelley said. “To recognize the ways we prejudge people, that we quickly assume that we know something about them and that we have the right to police the space based on those knowledges. I’m glad to hear that they’re going to continue to do this work. It’s not something you can do in one day.”

Kelley knows that to be the truth.

She’s no stranger to being in the news. Kelley didn’t hesitate to call out musical artist Kanye West this month when he said that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” Thoughtfully, yet passionately, Kelley took to Twitter to debunk West’s assertation in a series of tweets that went viral. West later clumsily backtracked.

Yet even with an official title that would stretch the boundaries of an index card, Kelley said there are times when her credentials are initially questioned. That she’s followed in stores or pulled over when she isn’t speeding. Each incident stems from a variety of factors such as her gender, age and race. Whether factored separately or weighted together, the conclusion fits in the first impression category.

Kelley and other scholars say that’s because of implicit bias, something Kelley says is “a measurable and trackable thing that (proves) we all favor certain kinds of people.” There are online tests, she said, that provide insight into personal assumptions, offering the possibility that education, when paired with that conversation, could make a difference.

Again, it’s all about getting to that next level.

“It’s what we do beyond that first moment that matters more,” Kelley said. “Let me not call the police on those young men, just watch for a second and make sure they’re not doing anything terrible or suspicious. Let me not assume the worst of them. I know that I have a little bit of a bias here. Let me take a step back. Let me take a pause and make a better decision in that moment.

“I live a life marred by these first, quick assumptions,” she added. “My children, I hope, will live a life less marred by them if we can start to do the work going beyond that first impression to think a bit more deeply about who people might really be.”

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