Implicit Bias — You have it too

By Heidi Schillinger, edited by Erin

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Editor’s Note: Heidi wrote this in part to share ideas about last week’s blog post about Starbuck’s afternoon closure. This week we’ll go deeper into looking at implicit racial bias and why we need to pay attention to it.

cultural_unconscious_biasAll of us have biases. We develop them as we are socialized and it is part of who we are. As part of our work around being better humans and learning about race and its impact on people we need to pay attention to our biases and work to recognize them.

Acknowledge and Model Normalizing Implicit Racial Bias: It’s easy to point at others, or whisper behind their backs, and say how horrible their implicit racial bias problem is, but the reality is brain science points to the fact that is it human to have bias. And implicit (a.k.a. unconscious) bias comes from the socially designed construction of race— specifically, designed racial segregation, including colonization, reservations, slavery, racial restrictive covenants, legal segregation, Japanese Internment, Chinese Exclusion laws, Jim Crow, and now the current evolution of those explicit policies – displacement, segregation, etc. Repeat after me. It is human to have bias. I am not a bad person if I admit I have bias. No one took a training and presto eliminated their biases.

As a thought experiment have a conversation with someone about biases. If they say, “I am a good person, so I don’t have biases,” or if they tell you they got rid of their biases in 2005, share a recent racial bias you noticed in yourself, and admit you are human and have biases and that likely they might have biases still too. The key to this strategy is not to share a bias from childhood (sending the message that you only had biases when you were young), but to share one from today or the last few days.

In case you’re wondering people of color have racial biases too. We are human too (although the dehumanizing narrative of race still runs deep and thick). It’s important to acknowledge that racial bias + power = systemic racism, which is why white folks need to carry a heavier load of unpacking racism and biases. It’s also important to stress that racial bias just doesn’t show up as negative bias toward a group, but also positive bias toward your own group. Consider how white folks are often given the benefit of the doubt and can avoid things like traffic tickets, school discipline – or how white folks can use the restroom without paying for coffee at a café, walk around a neighborhood without people suspecting they/you don’t belong, or get hired on a belief about their/your potential even if they/you don’t meet the stated qualifications.

In the spirit of modeling, here is a recent example of my own. During a recent training session, I saw two young women of color walk into the session. My first thought (that inner voice) was that they must be interns, as I knew this organization was working hard to racially diversify their interns. I really wanted to ask, “Are you interns? What school are you attending?” But caught my inner voice, and thought since I’m doing a session on implicit racial bias, maybe I shouldn’t ask those questions as my initial conversation starters. When we went around the room to do introductions the two young women stated they are recent hires and engineers. That is when shame took over in my mind. But hey, I’m human too. The good news is I could catch myself before asking the questions, but I am sure I don’t always catch myself.

Action Tip: The takeaway from this strategy is to talk with one other person today about an implicit racial bias that you noticed in yourself, and try hard to normalize these conversations.

Slow Down and Notice Implicit Racial Bias: Okay, we’ve established all humans have implicit racial biases, now we need to slow ourselves down and notice them. I work with a lot of educators and love the teaching prompts “I notice… I wonder…” as a way to talk about implicit racial bias. Here is how this can work. When you’re sitting in a meeting today, slow down and notice who is in the room and who isn’t in the room. For example, if you’re having a meeting about how to engage people who speak English as a second or third or fourth language, stop and ask “I wonder how many people in this room have that experience?” If everyone says, they are monolingual English speaker, then say “I notice that everyone here is a monolingual English speaker, and I wonder how we might be missing important perspectives as we have this conversation.” Here are some other examples ways to practice slowing down and noticing race (and seeing if there is implicit racial bias) –

Action Tip: Notice the Race of the –

  1. Authors of your favorite books
  2. Most recent hires
  3. Board members and leadership team
  4. Closest friends
  5. Professional network
  6. Owners of the businesses that you support
  7. Consultants you hire

Most people’s gut reaction to doing this is to justify or say “yes, but…” Here is the thing if racial bias shows up in these analysis, you’re not a bad person, you’re just a product of our (racist) system. The question is, now that you know, will you do something different? Or will you just justify the results and continue to uphold the existing system of racism?

Be Curious and Consider the Opposite: Two of my favorite TED Talks – How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them and Color Blind or Color Brave offer examples of how this “consider the opposite” strategy works. Verna Myers in How to overcome our biases, talks about how she was really excited when she heard she was flying in a plane with a woman pilot, but when the plane hit turbulence she thought “I hope this lady can fly.” But then on the flight home, she realized that it’s always turbulent and bumpy and when there is a male pilot, she never questions whether they can fly. Mellody Hobson, in Color blind or Color brave, takes about how most board rooms are filled with white men, and we just believe that is normal, but if we were to walk into a board room filled with just black folks we would think that is weird.

Action Tip: Think about when your biases play out and think about the opposites of those biases. As an example if your bias is to listen to leaders talk but tune out others during conversations ask yourself why, does race have a role to play in who gets listened to and believed?

Design Around our Default Implicit Racial Biases: Once we can admit we have implicit racial biases, then we can design around them. Here are a few ways this is being done.

Many/Most HR departments are acknowledging that unintentional name bias is happening during the applicant screening process, so to design around this names are being removed during the review process. Taking a name off of an application allows for a first blind review and has the potential to screen in people with names that may be believed to be more racialized.

Women and minority owned business enterprise (WMBE) contracting efforts started as a government way to contract more with women and people of color. Once people acknowledged that most contracts go to white male owned businesses they can make a conscious effort to not leave women and people out. Side note, if you analyze your WMBE numbers, I am willing to bet unless you are being intentional most of your WMBE contracts go to white women. Which is another reason to also be explicit about calling-in race.

Action Tip: Pay attention to where you default to spending your time and money, then design your day to be more intentional about including people of color owned businesses or whom you spend your time with.

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