Once there was a man named Matthew Potter who went to work every day at a supermarket and enjoyed interacting with the customers and his co-workers.

Once there was a man named Matthew Potter who went to work every day at a supermarket and enjoyed interacting with the customers and his co-workers.

There was one co-worker, however, who started out friendly with the man, but liked to talk about how different the man was from other people, and liked to laugh about that and use words like “slow” to define him. And the man, who had a learning disability, tried to laugh along, but he didn’t like to be singled out and pointed at and laughed at and it made him hate himself and wonder if he had any value at all. So the man asked his boss for a transfer to another supermarket, and when the transfer came through, he was happy to leave behind the co-worker who made him feel like he didn’t matter – like other people who thought faster and spoke faster mattered more.

CAST Self Advocacy Group president and chairman, Potter shared his story during the “Inclusion: Mayflower to 2020” forum last week, which discussed unconscious bias – what it is and how to be more inclusive and open. Hosted by the Plymouth Area League of Women Voters and Plymouth’s No Place for Hate Committee, the forum was held in response to local news reports last summer of a town official who felt his negative treatment was racially motivated. Plymouth No Place For Hate Committee Chairman Barbara Aharoni said she was so rattled by the story and its ramifications that she and Kathy Dunn of the League put their heads together and decided to host the event.

While more obvious signs of unconscious bias can be fairly easy to spot, Potter’s story addressed the muddier reality of those who think their jokes or ribbing are not offensive and are even welcomed by the target. He noted that his co-worker’s unconscious bias embedded in his so-called innocent jokes. And these jokes about a person’s body or mental capacity or age or race or religion, among others, often has a demeaning impact on the target. The comments become weaponized in these scenarios, where the victim can feel helpless to combat the situation because it is all under the guise of humor.

IES Abroad Diversity Director Gretchen Cooke Anderson led the talk, noting that all humans suffer from varying degrees of unconscious bias – reactions to others based on appearance and personal perceptions that cause a fight or flight response. She noted that most who meet her for the first time make assumptions based on her appearance that do not even begin to complete a picture of her. While she looks African American, she noted that she is fluent in Japanese, that she is a Mayflower descendant, and she has traveled to dozens of countries.

But, if the world suffers from unconscious bias, what can be done about?

Cooke Anderson mapped out a course, noting that the key to unconscious bias lives in the comfort zone. What people are used to is what they’re comfortable with, so venturing outside of that box can be a little scary. But that is just what people need to do.

She coined the expression “inclusivist” to mean someone who believes inclusion is beneficial, wants to cleanse their life of bias, stands up for those being singled out unfairly, and welcomes learning about new cultures, hanging out with people who are different from them, attending events about different cultures and people and, literally, inviting them to sit at the dinner table. Cooke Anderson trademarked the term Inclusivist.

“Science says diversity makes you smarter,” she added, referencing a New York Times article that explored research studies about diversity and discovered that stepping outside one’s comfort zone and meeting people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures actually creates more synapses in the brain.

Cooke Anderson urged audience members to reach out to people in the community who are truly different, from another culture or background, and schedule a lunch with them or a play date with their children. Finding a blog written by a person of another cultural background and following it is another way, she said, or joining a multicultural book club and reading books by people of different cultures. The list goes on and on, with so many wonderful and fun opportunities to learn and enjoy others, she said.

Director of Islamic Cultural Center of Medford Nichole Mossalam, who is running for state representative of the 35th Middlesex District, noted that she was raised Roman Catholic and decided to become Muslim, much to her parents’ horror. It took time, she said, to convince them that her husband was a good man, but she has encountered the face of hate from the unconscious bias of Americans who register her appearance at a glance.

“We have so much more in common,” she told the crowd of 100. “In the Islamic tradition, in the Koran it says God tells us that ‘I made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. But the most righteous among you is the best.”

She said this passage notes that the most spiritual and kind human being is the best in the eyes of God.

Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe Chairlady Melissa Ferretti and Temple Beth Jacob Executive Board member Jackie Winokur both said education is key so that children learn early about other cultures and their value, as well as the histories of genocide and subjugation, such as the Holocaust. Ferretti said she is surprised that Wampanoag culture isn’t included in curricula, particularly in Plymouth, which owes so much to the tribe. Winokur said she’s equally surprised that Holocaust education isn’t mandatory.

Ferretti dealt with racism as a child, she said, as she was raised by her Aunt Verna in the Native American way. Winokur, who grew up in Plymouth, said she was 10 and walking home from school one day when a classmate declared he didn’t understand why he was supposed to hate her. It was 1965 and the Catholic Church had come out against Jews, she said. Today, she said, she’s disheartened by the increase in hate crimes in America. Winokur said reading stories about bias and history that drill down on the individual impacts has a powerful and lasting impact on children and adults alike.

The forum drew residents from throughout the greater Plymouth area, with audience members asking what they can do to support the cause for unity, acceptance and a more peaceful future.

Cooke Anderson stressed that listening is important, acknowledging historic inequities cultures and tribes of people have suffered, defending those who are targeted, supporting laws that enforce inclusion and cultivating authentic friendships outside one’s comfort zone are wonderful ways of becoming an inclusivist.