Every second, millions of bits of new information are trying to enter into your awareness. Imagine how overwhelming that must be for your brain. In response to this barrage of input, your brain has created an organizational system wherein it simply ignores some of the data (“inattentional blindness”) and sorts the rest into categories it has created.
Your categories are based on your own experiences (your culture, gender, age, sexuality, family, politics, work, travel, etc.). The more exposure you have to people who are different from you, the more you become aware of multiple “exceptions” to your existing classifications. Experiencing differences and gaining new information is key to expanding your categories and creating new ones. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
However, if you have limited exposure to other races, cultures, ages, genders etc., you have fewer categories because there is less new input. For example, if you’ve lived all your life where you have had limited interaction with people of other races and cultures; if you attended a private school with peers from the upper 1% of the population; if you primarily associate with people of your own profession or age group; or if you only watch a news channel that reinforces your own beliefs, you live in “bounded awareness.” This bounded awareness means that we are more susceptible to biases and stereotypes about certain races, genders, sexual preferences, physical “disabilities,” regions of the country, political issues, and even characteristics (weight, age, appearance).
We are usually not aware of these unconscious biases and, in fact, many of them are contrary to our own stated beliefs. This means we are unknowingly acting on biases which we do not even believe we have. And if someone says that we are acting in a biased way, we react defensively because we feel accused of violating our deeply held beliefs.
Unfortunately, we are most likely to act on these biases when we are thinking quickly, making snap judgments, trusting our “gut” or our “intuition,” are under pressure, tired, scared, or in a new and uncomfortable situation. Basically, multiple times a day.
The ramifications of implicit bias expand beyond our own personal beliefs. While implicit bias is not prejudice or discrimination in and of itself, it can easily lead to policies that encourage systemic racism in education, housing, health care, voting, criminal justice, employment —almost every facet of our lives.
It is crucial for us to understand that we will never be “bias free.” Therefore, we need to become “bias aware.”
How do we become bias aware?
First, find out about the biases that you do not even know you have. Take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test which has multiple categories to choose from: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html (Be prepared to be surprised and a bit defensive, especially if it is in a category in which you believe that you have no bias.)
Move beyond awareness to specific skills. Good intentions and general aspirational goals usually do not lead to changes of behavior. “I have become more aware,” “my perspective has changed,” or “my eyes have been opened,” does not mean we will do anything differently. What we do with the information is the key. As a first step, take the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. https://www.eddiemoorejr.com/21daychallenge
Expand your “circle.” Be aware of the “affinity bias.” We tend to associate with people who are like ourselves. Even if our workplace/school/neighborhood is diverse, it does not mean we are having diverse interactions. Think about your informal conversations - whom do you socialize with at lunch or after work? Whose desk do you stop by to say hello? When you are taking your morning run/walk, whom do you stop and greet?
Acknowledge that we can never “step into someone else’s shoes.” Each of us lives our life through our own experiences — our own filters. As a privileged, over 65, white, professional woman, I will never be able to “step in the shoes” of a 19-year-old black man being pulled over by the police. To presume so would be arrogant. Our life experiences are just too different. That does not mean we don’t have empathy; it means we need to listen, learn, engage, be humble, seek to understand — and never assume what someone else’s experience is like.
Be curious. Making assumptions about how someone feels, what they are thinking, why they are doing something, leads to “fundamental attribution error.” “If I were them, this is why I would be doing what they are doing.” We are usually wrong in our assumptions.
Acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. Instead of saying, “I am sorry if I offended you,” say “That was not my intention. Would you be willing to tell me what I did wrong?” Being open to learning and to being educated shows more remorse than a partial apology that shows no real understanding of the offense.
Professionally and personally, speak out. Silence is complicit. Become an active ally not a passive supporter.
In meetings, mediations, or facilitations, think about where people are sitting (certain places may reflect higher/lower power — and it is not just the head of the table), who is speaking and whether they have comparable speaking time with other participants, who is being interrupted and by whom, who is being under-credited and who is being over-credited, who is silent, who has become a “free-rider” and is no longer fully participating. How can you change the dynamic? (It should be noted that people from “marginalized” populations often experience the more negative experiences above.)
Think about your office environment. What does it say about you? Your preferences? Your life experiences? What impression will it give to people who do not have the same life experience? Will they feel connected? Alienated? Calm? Anxious? What biases may they assume you have (even if you do not have them, or are unaware that you have them)?
And finally — be kind to yourself, as well as others, as you learn and change. We will all continue to make mistakes. We will all continue to be a “work in progress.” The challenge, as well as the beauty, of learning is that we will never be done.