Artwork by Olivia Kang for Outsmarting Human Minds. Learn the science of implicit bias at outsmartinghumanminds.org
I am frequently asked questions about bias. Broad questions such as, “what is it?” and “how does it work?” to more specific asks such as, “how does it impact relationships with different people, groups, and in the workplace?” These are exactly the kind of topics and substantive discussions that regularly take place in the DJA course, “Reducing the Negative Impact of Bias.” I want to share some of these questions and answers more broadly. Hopefully, this will generate conversations that will help you along your own journey of personal growth.
All humans have bias. Whether it's positive or negative, conscious or unconscious, bias shows up every day in our thoughts, behaviors, and processes.
Bias is also a key topic related to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) because of the implications it has on so many aspects of our lives-l from our well-being, our work, to our overall community cultures. The presence and impact of bias determine outcomes in educational settings, the legal system, and businesses’ ability to reach EDI and anti-racism goals. As much as people are talking about bias, it’s the stuff that we’re not talking about–that sometimes we’re not even aware of–that is the most dangerous–implicit or unconscious bias. That’s why I’m talking about it now and that’s why I’m encouraging you to do the same.
Q: Does awareness of bias reduce its negative impact?
A: No. Awareness is just that, which is just the first step. The bigger benefit of learning about bias is that in the process of reflection you will likely discover, and potentially acknowledge unconscious bias. You will move it from the unconscious to the conscious category in your brain. Once you are consciously aware of bias, particularly negative bias, and the undesirable consequences it has for your own integrity or on others, you can act to change it. Only from a place of conscious awareness of bias do you have true agency to change it and to show up in the world as you desire.
Q: Why do we need to talk about race when we’re all just human?
A: You need to know that race is a social construct and as real as the nose on your face, particularly for people who are members of marginalized racial communities. For those who want to spend a lot of time on the biology or intellectual angle, I think that arguing about its existence is not the point. Arguing about the existence of race means that you are either a) missing an opportunity to talk about the real issue—racism, or b) likely using this line of intellectual interrogation to avoid deep reflection on the real implications of fractured race relations at the national, systems and interpersonal levels. Ijeoma Oluo's book, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018), is an excellent place to start in learning more about the complexities of race and racism in our cultures and in the everyday lives of non-white people.
Q: Why is talking about race so difficult for white people?
A: White people, in societies where non-white people are marginalized, have not had as much practice talking about race and racism as have many people of color. They haven’t had to, which is the essence of white privilege. People of color talk about race as a matter of fact, a matter of survival. We have to learn, and teach each other, how to navigate systems that weren’t built for us, in which we are often unwelcome, and avoid (hopefully) danger. For white people talking about race means confronting white privilege, or not, and often a lifetime of instances where they have been able to avoid the difficult reality, and practice discussing, that has been central to the identity and survival of so many people of color.
Q: Shouldn’t we get past focusing on race?
A: We won’t be past the need to talk about race until racism has ended; not exactly right around the corner from my vantage point. Race and racism are ingrained in the fabric of the U.S.; intertwined with the history of how the country came into existence. Other countries, with their own history, have similar commingling of racism and hero-making, pillage, and triumph. If anything, now is exactly the time to develop a more sophisticated skill-set for talking about race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, and a host of other potentially uncomfortable topics--topics around which bias still exists and its negative impacts are felt every day. If you’re uncomfortable talking about any of the topics, it's ok to be uncomfortable sometimes. That's the feeling associated with growth.
Q: Why do I need to invest in learning about racism, homophobia, power, and oppression?
A: Racism, homophobia, power, and oppression are complicated systems. The real question is: how did so many people come to form such strong opinions about them without intentional, ongoing learning? Most of what most of us have learned about these topics has been given to us through someone else’s lenses. For leaders of conscience, we need to invest in our own learning, applied through our own rigorous investment in knowledge, personal reflection, and application to our personal values and beliefs.
Q: I don’t like the word ‘microaggressions.’ Doesn’t it imply intentional hostility which isn’t necessarily the case?
A: Consider the term in reference to the felt experience of the person experiencing the event. In particular, consider that microaggressions are seemingly minor slights that are experienced over and over again, sometimes many times in one day. The cumulative effect over time feels like an assault. In essence, most of the people who express feeling uncomfortable with this term have been told that you’ve committed one, or sometimes many. Your reaction is centered around you, your feelings. Instead, I invite you to center the feelings of the person who experienced the microaggression.
Q: Will taking a course alone reduce my bias?
A: No. Training alone does not work. Research shows that people may change behavior for a short period of time directly following a training experience, but within a relatively small window (about 4 weeks) revert back to behaviors practiced before participating in the training experience. Do not abandon training, though. Instead, commit to regularly investing in training that keeps your awareness high and ensures that you have exposure to new ideas, language, and practices. Think of it like this: all masterful performers (musicians, artists, athletes, managers, and leaders) invest in ongoing training and education—forever.
Q: How should I leverage others to support my learning?
A: You are responsible for your education.
It is not the responsibility of people from non-dominant groups to educate you about how your privilege is marginalizing them. Yes, we want to enlist people from a variety of backgrounds to share their voices, experiences, and suggestions for minimizing bias and barriers, but that work cannot be delegated. Where you have privilege, you have responsibility for investing in your own education and skill development. In essence, do your own work first.
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