They Call Me Mr. Tibbs

By Dr. Cherry Collier

Senior Consultant TLG

In 1991, at the University of Georgia (UGA), I started my master’s thesis on unconscious bias. Back then, based on Devine’s work in 1989, we learned about the implicit nature of stereotypes and that their activation was automatic. In 1991, Gilbert & Hixon postulated that this automatic process once activated could be controlled. I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life working with organizational leaders to understand how to create inclusive cultures that allow all people the chance to contribute to the bottom line.

I focus on this type of work because when I was about to publish my thesis in a tier 1 journal as a behavioral scientist, it should have been the happiest day of my young career at that point. Instead, I cried like a baby because the research I was publishing as a black female proved scientifically that people hire used heuristics first and automatically, without ever thinking they would hire a possibly less qualified white person for a job based on his or her race first and ability second.

Having a statistically significant finding at the 001 level doesn’t happen often. It means your results are strong, and because you controlled for all other variables, there’s little chance your findings were not caused by the variables studied (race and ability in this case).

When I started to do bias training in early 2000, I was naïve enough to think that bias could be eliminated. I was determined to flatten the curve and help others not make the choices I saw made in my experiment. I wanted them to have all the tools needed to make informed choices using the technique I now call Stop, Look, and Listen before they unconsciously go with natural choices or make decisions. The work has been very rewarding, and my cognitive and unconscious bias classes help many people examine how the stimulus is presented and how they want to respond in a Victor Frankl-inspired way.

In 2020, the year of perfect sight (20/20 vision), I can see so much more than that young black female who entered UGA after graduating from Spelman College, believing she could change the world. What is different for me in 2020 is the number of times “well-intended” folks do things that are unintentionally harmful to others.

I prefer not to address those who use dog whistles or bullhorns; that is another category, and not the point of my introspective thoughts meant to help us be better and get along. I believe in the beauty and positive possibilities that exist in humanity. We are beautiful people who every now and then behave badly.

While teaching my bias classes over the past thirty years, I have noticed the increase of microinequities and microaggressions. These are subtle ways in which some people are discounted or overlooked. People often don’t notice these actions, but the person on the receiving end notices. It is like getting a paper cut. One paper cut might not sting that much, but if you get ten of them a day, when you get in the shower, it burns.

This example might not seem like a big deal to you, but because this happens to me repeatedly by males, and most notably white males, and I teach this stuff, I wanted to give you a real-life example of how micromessages look and feel. Here is an excerpt from a correspondence with a white male to whom I have never introduced myself. He knows me and my credentials, and his writing references another white male.

“Hi, Cherry. We are familiar with one another because of our work XXXXXX.

I also understand that Dr. Matthew Paul has referred me to you.”

Notice he calls me “Cherry” and the white male who is his friend and colleague, “Dr. Matthew Paul.”

 The person who wrote this is NOT my friend. He does not know me personally. We have never had a one-on-one conversation, and I did NOT introduce myself to him as “Cherry.” This is a microinequity. You might think it is trivial, but black people have had a very long history of not being called by their titles, hence the title of this article “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.”

In the movie In the Heat of the Night, they called Mr. Virgil Tibbs many names, and they did all they could NOT to call him Mr. Tibbs. Many people in society are given automatic rites of passage, and power is automatically ascribed to them. When you unconsciously call everyone in the room Doctor but the black woman, what are you saying? What should her response be?

I want to assume all folks are well-intentioned, and we just need someone who cares enough to let us know. Tip: when you write, and you make one person a Dr., just give the other person who earned the title as well the same courtesy. You should call them by the title until they let you know it is not the name they prefer. If you don’t use titles at all, it doesn’t mean that the person you are talking about or introducing yourself to doesn’t. Ask folks what they like to be called. Don’t slash their hard work because you have a preference.  Stop, Look and Listen!!  ASK!!

I assume we all come from a place of love, and just because I have been doing this work for thirty years does not mean I do not feel the same paper cuts I hear other people explain. We must STOP and not do only what is automatic or natural, but also do something else! We must break the pattern. We must LOOK around to see in the year of perfect 20/20 vision where we might be misinterpreted or doing something that is unintentionally harmful to someone else. Even if we think it is petty, we have to LISTEN when the person says it bothered them and take the time to understand why and shift our behavior.

We are all better together. Please understand that if your behavior marginalizes another person intentionally or unintentionally, you need to make it right. We are much better when we use empathy and compassion and realize our behavior could be tied to a long line of behaviors that might seem simple to us, but the other person doesn’t view it that way. Don’t take others for granted. Have the courage to Speak Up!!! Point it out and check it out! Be an advocate for change and the person who experienced the micro-message.

They call him Mr. Tibbs, and they call me Dr. Cherry. I really appreciate when others put the same level of respect on my title as those in power. I earned my degree; it wasn’t given to me. I did not buy it…I earned it because of the blood sweat and tears of many Black Scholars who went to UGA before me such as Dr. Hamilton Holmes, Ms. Charlene Hunter Gault and Ms. Mary Frances Early. I attended on a scholarship and had to work twice as hard as all the others, being the only black student in my program. Small paper cuts create huge cuts in inequality over time.

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