The Wonderful Thing About Sneetches

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches Had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches Had none upon thars. Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”                                                                  Dr Seuss


Some of you may have found my last post hard to read. I understand; I found it extremely hard to write, for a number of reasons. But I knew it had to be done, and I tried to prepare beforehand by reminding myself and you why: because if we don’t remember what’s gone before, where we’ve been, what’s been done, in some form or fashion we or some future generation are going to repeat it. Because progress depends not simply on change, but on retaining the memory of what has gone before. Because we cannot remember what we have never known. Because our code of silence, among other things, has kept us from telling, and so from knowing. Because continuing in our pattern of “family secrets” can destroy us. Because while the truth may be ugly and dark, it must be exposed, acknowledged, understood; only then can it become a source of strength and make free those who have faced it.

I hope that makes sense to you. But maybe you’re wondering what’s up with all the quotes I used; this isn’t meant to be an academic paper but a story, my story. That’s true. I feel I need to include the quotes because I want to give you just a glimpse what I’ve learned, and am learning, as I’ve wandered around in my quest to “understand backwards,” to make sense of the past and of the present, and to use what I’ve learned to try to impact the future. I could tell you about what I’ve read, but in my telling of what I’ve learned from others, that part of the story would lose some of its clarity, its power. Each time a story goes through another person it loses some of its sharpness, kind of like a copy of a picture. Each time a picture is copied it loses some of its resolution, it becomes fuzzier, less accurate, less reliable, less intense, and so less memorable. In reading the actual words of a writer you can get a clearer picture; I don’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to see for yourself, not just hear from me. Maybe you will see something I don’t see, and will tell me (if you don’t have my email address, you can use the Contact link in the Menu), and we will both learn.

Now, on to Sneetches. Those of you who know the work of Dr Seuss are probably familiar with this story and know that Sneetches are docile creatures who live on beaches and apparently have nothing to do except spend their days playing ball, having picnics, thoroughly enjoying themselves—well, part of them that is, at least in the beginning of the story. It seems there are two kinds of Sneetches: those with stars on their bellies, and those without. That appears to be the only distinguishing mark of the two groups, but having or not having the star was a BIG DEAL. The belief that those with stars were superior went unchallenged by both groups. As illustrator of the book as well as author, Seuss (Geisel) did a wonderful job of capturing in their expressions the way each group viewed themselves. The “best kind of Sneetch,” the ones with “stars on thars,” walked around “with their snoots in the air,” while those without stars just sat watching with downcast expressions, “moping and doping alone on the beaches” as those superior Sneetches enjoyed themselves. There were no clashes, no violent acts, no demonstrations; the use of ostracism as a passive weapon to keep the no-star Sneetches in their place proved highly effective, as it usually does. Separation of the two groups was accepted as the natural order of things. But one day, something happened that was to change everything.

A strange vehicle arrived, driven by an odd being by the name of Sylvester McMonkey McBean. McBean had seen an opportunity to make some money and approached those Sneetches without stars with a solution to their problem. He had a machine that could put stars on their bellies, making them indistinguishable from those who naturally had stars—for a fee, of course. Satisfaction guaranteed. The no-stars Sneetches were elated, and lined up. The machine worked like a charm, and soon all Sneetches had stars. This situation was intolerable for those who had held the original superior position; now there was no way to tell the two groups apart. Being the opportunist, McBean had foreseen this and had come prepared with a solution: his Star-Off machine could remove stars (for a larger fee, of course), and not having a star could become the new mark of superiority. The quiet beach property of the Sneetches became abuzz with activity as Sneetches lined up to go through the machines, having stars put on and taken off until no one knew who was who, and McBean had all their money. At this point he made his exit, laughing, saying to himself that Sneetches will never learn because “you can’t teach a Sneetch!”

But it turned out McBean was wrong. Since everyone was all mixed up and they saw no way to restore the lines of superiority and inferiority, Sneetches got smart and came to the realization that “Sneetches are Sneetches,” that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” And that’s the wonderful thing about Sneetches: they’re not human. Their existence began in the imagination of Dr Seuss, and they live on in the imaginations of those who read the story. They exist in the world of “happily ever after,” where all can be made well and everyone can finally just learn to get along. We humans don’t live in that world, and the reality is, we aren’t so smart—at least not in the wonderful way of Sneetches.

For more than thirty years, Harvard professor and social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has been among those in the forefront of research in the area of unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias. I was first introduced to her when I came across an “On Being” podcast over a year ago. Her description of the human mind as “a difference-seeking machine”[1] grabbed my attention, and I wanted to know more. I was fascinated and enlightened as I read her account of her work in the 2013 book (coauthored by fellow psychologist Anthony Greenwald) titled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

I knew that human babies are not born with the ability to distinguish differences between people; what I didn’t know was that by the age of three months, babies have begun to make distinctions and have developed preferences for faces of people belonging to their own race. This ability to make distinctions is a valuable skill and serves all of us well in terms of survival, equipping us to recognize threats and take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. For babies, the basis for the distinctions made has to do with familiarity. What is familiar is deemed safe, as “us”; what is different is seen as “them”, as “other”, as “not like us,” as “not safe.” Definite preferences develop, and they remain unless something or someone intervenes, making that which is seen as “not like us” become seen as familiar, as safe. Preferences aren’t limited to race; there’s gender, religion, nationality, the area of the country we live in, accents, and on and on. Preferences can be and are formed, in both children and adults, based on even the slightest differences.

Benaji and Greenwald show how this inherent ability of the human mind to notice and value differences is what causes us to stereotype: “stereotyping is inseparable from this remarkably refined human ability to recognize and categorize human diversity.” And then came this defining statement: “It is not possible to be human and to avoid making use of stereotypes.” [2] So you see, humans are not like Sneetches, and being a Sneetch is better—there you have it, proof that I am human! Seems it didn’t take much for me to notice a difference and develop a preference for Sneetches!

The important thing to know in all this is that a great many of the preferences we develop reside below our level of awareness, in our unconscious or implicit minds. We all have hidden-bias blindspots that cause discrepancies between what we think we think, how we think we feel, and what we really unconsciously think and feel. How we act often springs from these implicit biases, and not from our conscious thoughts. If we are challenged about these biases, we protest and deny, avowing that we know it cannot possibly be true that we are biased: we are good people. Banaji and her colleagues have given these hidden biases a name: mindbugs.

In 1995, a test was developed by psychologists that continues to be used to reveal implicit biases, or mindbugs. The Implicit Association Test, known as the IAT, includes several different areas, is designed to be self-administered, and can now be accessed online at the Project Implicit website.[3] Banaji and Greenwald offer a word of caution to those who are brave enough to identify and face their own personal mindbugs using these tests. Finding out what you think you think isn’t actually the thinking that drives your behavior can be mentally and emotionally distressing.

Up for the challenge, I went to the website and took some of tests (the link is below if you’re interested). I have to confess I was surprised by some of my results, as countless others have been. When my results on the RACE IAT came up, I couldn’t believe it. But when I read that writer Malcolm Gladwell’s results revealed a moderate preference for white people, I found it easier to accept my results. In an interview about what he learned, Gladwell said, “I was biased—slightly biased—against Black people, toward White people, which horrified me because my mom’s Jamaican…The person in my life who I love more than almost anyone else is Black, and here I was taking a test, which said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about Black people, you know? So, I did what anyone else would do: I took the test again! Maybe it was an error, right? Same result. Again, same result, and it was this creepy, dispiriting, devastating moment.” I did the same thing, except I took the test four times, determined to learn to beat it. I was finally forced to accept my results and move on (for now—I have no doubt I’ll go back and keep trying), now aware of the split in my mind that could potentially cause me to act in ways that discriminate while I think I’m being totally fair. And that’s the point: I’m now aware that I have mindbugs, and know that I need to take measures to counteract them to make sure they don’t develop into something bad. Unfortunately, they can’t be cured, because I am human. But knowing I have them helps a lot; becoming aware of and learning to manage them will help even more.

Mindbugs are simply our naturally developed preferences that are below our level of awareness; in themselves they’re neither good nor bad. The IAT reveals mindbugs, not prejudice or racism; there’s a difference. Prejudice involves negativity or hostility, and leads to unjust behavior. When prejudice is directed against a different race of people based on the belief that one’s own race is superior, that is racism. With racism comes racial slurs, statements of disrespect, aggressive or violent actions.

We are not all prejudiced or racist, but we all have mindbugs because we are human and as such, we develop preferences, we prejudge, we seek differences, we stereotype. Even though it was written as long ago as 1954, Gordon Allport’s book The Nature of Prejudice continues to be foundational work on the scientific understanding of stereotypes. In this book, Allport says, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories.… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends on it.”

Here’s an example of how knowing about implicit bias can help us. Prior to 1970, less than ten percent of the members of the major symphony orchestras in America were women. Most people weren’t concerned about this because, to them, it made sense, since it was generally accepted that men were better musicians than women. It never occurred to them that maybe this male dominance of instrumentalists was “less a gift of nature to men than a gift of culture that recognizes, encourages, and promotes male talent.”[4]

Things began to change when a group of musicians protested that students of certain prominent teachers were being hired at a greater rate than those of others. In an attempt to prevent bias, a curtain was erected between the audition committee and the auditioning instrumentalists. This action prevented any accusations of bias based on teachers, but something else significant happened as a result: the number of women hired increased dramatically, as did the number of non-White orchestra members. Susan Slaughter, former principal trumpet for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, described what happened: “There was a dramatic change. Once the curtain went up, more and more women were making the finals. We just had to choose the best from the people who came out from behind the curtain.”

Even though she was the founder of the International Women’s Brass Conference, Slaughter herself admitted her surprise at the number of excellent women tuba players she encountered: “Even in my own mind, I did not think I would hear many women tuba players that were that far along. I was wrong. We all have prejudices and preconceived ideas.”[5]

By 2013, about 50 percent of the members of the nation’s top orchestras were women. To prevent bias, even implicit bias, the curtain remains up and should continue to remain up for auditions. In addition, those auditioning walk on a long strip of carpet so the committee can’t hear the sound of their shoes. Women instrumentalists are often coached on how to breathe, because the sound of an inhale differs between men and women. These steps have become an accepted way to counteract biases in order to ensure there is no discrimination in hiring. They will continue to remain in place, because the world of the orchestra (in America; the same can’t be said for Europe) has recognized and has worked to counteract the impact of what we all do and always will do as humans: we stereotype.

In the early 1970s, Slaughter again auditioned, this time for the position of principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic. She didn’t get the job because director Zubin Mehta “told the committee he was not going to have a woman in the brass section.” Mehta’s comment indicates he had moved beyond preference into prejudice. This is but one example of the kind of prejudice women faced in those days, and in many areas still face today. Slaughter’s story, and many others like it, strikes a chord in me because in the late 1960s, I became a trumpet player, then a French horn player with a great deal of promise. As a girl in the brass section of the band, I endured three years of intense bullying. This experience had a lasting effect on me, one it took me many years to understand and overcome.

Having preferences is normal; mindbugs are normal. They are not the problem. The problem is that they can cause us to act in ways that discriminate, often without our even being aware of it. And, left unchecked and given the right conditions (economic uncertainty, changes in society, an atmosphere of fear, negative experiences, to name a few), they can lead to prejudice and racism, and so to injustice. And when prejudice and racism are proclaimed by a group of people or an entire society as supported, even mandated, by God or by science, the resulting injustice can be remarkably persistent, resistant, resilient. It’s an on-going battle, passed on from generation to generation.

Several years ago, my oldest daughter, then a graduate student in Illinois, and I took a road trip to Mississippi to help my mother with a problem she was having—her cat population had gotten out of control. That story needs to be told, but it’s part of the larger story about her emotional instability and hoarding and how it impacted me that will come later. As we neared the small town of Petal, we stopped for gas. We went into the Shell station to use the restroom. A mother and her young daughter, who I guessed to be around seven or eight years old, were already waiting in line, so we took our place behind them. The mother turned around and saw us standing there. Immediately she grabbed her daughter’s arm, jerked her out of the way and said to her, “Get out of the way and let those white ladies go first!” That took me by surprise and I protested, saying we would wait, telling her she should keep her place in line. She kept shaking her head, gesturing, pulling her little girl back and saying, “Go on, go on,” adamant that we should go ahead of them. I saw I wasn’t going to change her mind, so I said, “That’s not necessary, but it’s kind of you. Thank you.” The little girl just stared. So did my daughter.

As we walked toward the car a short time later, I asked my daughter, “Did you see what just happened?” She looked at me with an incredulous expression and said, “Did I see it??!! How could I miss it? Where are we, and what year is this?” The year was 2009; we were in southern Mississippi. I told her what she knew already but I needed to say: what we had just witnessed was a black mother teaching her young daughter her “place” in a society in which being white was superior. The knowledge of racism and how to live in this reality was being passed on to the next generation.

My father had tried a more direct approach in attempting to teach me “the truths about life” as he saw them. Knowing what I know now about what he believed helps me realize how my resistance and refusal to accept what he tried to convince me of must have struck terror in his heart. I feel sure that to his way of thinking, he failed miserably in his duty. This certainly wasn’t the only time the subject of his overtly racist attitudes and comments came up over the years. I made it clear this was something he must curb if he wanted to be around my children, and he really tried. How he developed his racist beliefs remains a mystery and, since he’s been gone for a number of years, is likely to remain so. I’ve talked to other members of his family and have learned this teaching didn’t come from there. I can only speculate about where he learned what he attempted to pass on directly to me; I’ll never know for sure. I do know he was doing what he believed was right; thankfully, for whatever reason, I recognized it was very wrong. I am under no illusions that my clarity of mind on this issue was a result of my own awareness. I know it was a gift.

When I think about the injustices that have been done and see the injustices that continue to be done under the guise of “God’s ordered way,” I feel the anger, the outrage flare up in me. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the desire to pronounce woes, to declare that under no circumstances will I ever sink so low as to allow injustice to be done through me, to become like “them.” I am learning I need to let that flame of emotion run its course, to allow its blaze to awaken and stir me, then to wait for fire within to settle into white-hot coals before I speak or act. For in this high level of indignation, however righteous, I face the danger of acting in the same manner as those whose attitudes and behavior I denounce. I think we all face that danger. We are all human, complete with inherent biases that can quickly shift to prejudice, causing us to label people whose ideas with which we disagree, maybe even find abhorrent as “other.”

Recently I stumbled upon the movie “Freedom Song,” a movie that tells the story of the opposition Black people in Mississippi encountered when they attempted to register to vote in the 1960s. Many scenes stuck with me, but I found one especially impacting. A White woman was explaining to a group of Black people why she thought they shouldn’t be trying to vote. I wrote down her words: “God created us to be separate and to stay in our place. He must have had his reason. His reason is that he wants us to have order. Otherwise we’d have disorder. And God doesn’t want disorder.” I could only groan and shake my head. There it was again: the appeal to a God-established order as the reason separation and subordination of entire people groups must be maintained. That appears to be a recurring theme, a persistent theme, one that I still hear playing today, though less overtly about racial order. It seems that there are those who call themselves followers of Jesus, who may sincerely believe they are following his way, that have become disoriented and are stuck in a pattern, going in circles, following the principle of order instead of the person of Jesus Christ.

I’ve wondered: what did Jesus actually say about what’s important? What did he consider to be guiding principles for life? I’ve looked for the answer to those questions, and will continue to look and to listen. When Jesus was asked what is most important in life, his answer was clear: we are to love God, and we are to love people, all people, as ourselves.[6] But there are other things Jesus considered important matters. Among them are justice, mercy, and faithfulness.[7] I’ve looked carefully, and what I don’t see is Jesus ranking people in a hierarchical order. Instead, I see him doing just the opposite: I see him reversing what had been the established order again and again. And I hear him praying for unity and oneness of all of his people.

I’ve been thinking—maybe by making a conscious effort to reorient our thinking, to develop guiding principles that actually line up with what Jesus told us is important, we could get out of this persistent pattern that fosters injustice. What would that look like? Well, something about acting in love for both God and all people would be at the top. Then maybe something like this:

Faithfully pursue justice while extending mercy.

Now that’s a guiding principle I think just might land us squarely in the path behind Jesus. It’s something to think about. I’ll keep thinking; I hope you will too. In the scope of life, this stuff matters. Justice matters.


[1] Banaji, Mahzarin. The program aired June 9, 2016.

[2] Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press, 2013). This book is worth reading in its entirety, but if you don’t have time to read it all, I highly recommend getting it to read the two Appendixes. Their titles will give an idea of the content.

Appendix 1: Are Americans Racist?

Appendix 2: Race, Disadvantage, and Discrimination

[3] Project Implicit (

[4] Banaji and Greenwald, p. 146

[5] Sarah Bryan Miller, “In orchestras, a sea change in gender proportions,” Arts and Theater, March 30, 2014.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40

[7] Matthew 23:23el