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Unconscious Bias: Just Because You Can’t See It, Others (Almost Certainly) Can


There we were. A roomful of mostly white adults from my upper middle-class, fairly liberal Massachusetts town, gathered together in our earnest desire to discover how to be better allies to people of color. Tensions grew as the facilitators led us into uncomfortable conversations designed to help us uncover our hidden biases, layer by layer.

Suddenly, a long-time resident proudly proclaimed: “None of this applies to me. When I look at a person, I am color-blind.” Many people nodded in silent assent. Finally, a young Latina woman stood up and turned to the woman, saying: “If it’s true that you really don’t see color when you look at me, then you invalidate who I am. I need you to see my color so you can understand and appreciate me, color and all.”

That’s when it hit me: By imagining that we see and treat everyone exactly the same, we excuse ourselves from the uncomfortable (and often truly painful) work of discovering the unconscious biases we carry, gaining awareness about the damage they can cause, and then learning how we can work to overcome them.

This week, I am launching a new half-day workshop called Discovering Unconscious Bias. It’s a tricky topic, because unconscious bias is, well, unconscious. Like the woman from our town who professed to be color-blind, many of us want to imagine that bias is an affliction that “other people” have, but never us. The thing is, unless we dig down and understand, identify and deal with the unconscious biases we hold, we can’t really be the “good allies” we claim to want to be. Just as people have implicit biases so, too, do organizations. In this edition, I offer tips and ideas for both individuals and organizations seeking to better understand how to identify and address unconscious biases that may be doing the most damage. 

  • Take the Implicit Association Test from Project Implicit, founded by three Harvard scientists in 1998, to discover what implicit biases may lurk beneath the surface for you. It’s free, easy and fast to take.  The results may startle you. When I got back my results, I was mortified to discover that I have a strong preference for people of European vs.  African descent. The test had to be bogus! Or maybe I misunderstood the directions? When I took the test again, I got the same results. That’s when it dawned on me that my unconscious biases were so deeply ingrained that I couldn’t bear to acknowledge them, at first. And if I couldn’t acknowledge my biases, then I couldn’t do anything to mitigate their damaging effects. That’s when I learned to accept my biases and learn from them.
  • Adapt a growth mindset. This is key. If we steadfastly believe that we are that perfectly egalitarian, fair, just person we want everyone to think we are, then we’re not open to learning, change or growth. Suspend disbelief and make yourself vulnerable by searching for examples when you have made uncharitable assumptions based on a person’s race, religion, physical attributes, level of education, zip code, voting preferences, manner of speaking, sports team affiliation, or a host of other factors. It didn’t take me long to pry loose some of these examples, many of which I found shocking. What’s important is that you be gentle with yourself as you go on this journey of self-awareness and see this as an opportunity to change and grow, rather than chastising yourself for “bad thoughts.” You may want to find a trusted partner to share your experiences and feelings with, or you can go it alone, taking notes along the way to allow for deeper reflections later on.
  • Look beyond your usual circles. Most of us tend to stay within our comfort zones when it comes to choosing colleagues to work with, mentor, give advice to, invite to lunch or dinner, welcome into our clubs or associations, share hobbies with, or simply spend time with.  This isn’t anyone’s “fault.” Indeed, many researchers say that we’re hardwired to seek out people who look like us, or with whom we share some type of affinity that we find meaningful. Sometimes the greatest damage implicit bias can inflict is failing to include others, whether it’s for a new project at work, a mentorship or internship, or a social gathering in the community. Challenge yourself to make meaningful new connections with people who are outside of your usual crowd.
  • Catch yourself. Maintain heightened awareness when you’re making judgements about someone else that may be based on a previously-unconscious bias. Example: When interviewing a new candidate, you may have quickly decided that s/he was not a “good fit.” (“Bad fit” is often code for “not our kind.”) Challenge yourself as to what assumptions you were making that led you to this conclusion, and be prepared to challenge colleagues who make the same claim. In social settings, do you exclude some neighbors to your gatherings based on your belief that “people of those cultures prefer to keep to themselves” based on no direct evidence whatsoever? Look for opportunities to prove your biases wrong.
  • Distinguish between unconscious bias and consciously-held generalizations or stereotypes. As a cross-cultural communications trainer, I encourage people to take the time to research other cultures so they can take the “first best guess” when working with someone from a particular country for the first time. Generalizations and stereotypes can be helpful as long as they are not evaluative or judgmental, and are based on objective research or direct observation. For example, it’s helpful to know enough about the French culture to anticipate that my French colleague is likely to engage me in a vigorous debate about my proposal, instead of assuming that my ideas will be accepted without challenge.
  • Enlist the help of senior leaders and colleagues to find ways your organization can identify and address instances of unconscious bias. (And make sure to invite people from outside of your usual circles!) For example, examine your recruiting efforts. Are you looking at only Ivy League schools? Are postings carefully worded to exclude certain types of candidates? Are all resumes equally considered without regard to gender, name, zip code, or other factors that may favor one candidate over another? Are interview questions standardized, with an agreed-upon criteria and rating system that applies equally to all? Consider how high-potential candidates are selected, who’s included in mentorship programs, and who’s sought after to lead plum projects or take on coveted international assignments. Are the eligibility requirements for some of these programs weighted in favor of certain people and against others? Determine which programs require the most urgent revamping and start there.
  • Call out microaggressions, which can be defined as statements, actions, or incidents regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority. When you hear one, don’t wait for targets to stand up for themselves. Call it out. Examples: No, where are you really from? I was surprised he was so articulate. I’ll bet your daughters are really good at math. She is one of our top female scientists. I don’t think he’s a good cultural fit. You people seem to take a lot of holidays. You probably won’t enjoy our party, because we’ll be serving alcohol. One way I like to challenge microaggressions is simply by asking what the other meant. E.g., “When you say he’s not a good cultural fit, can you share your assumptions? I want to understand what led you to this conclusion in case I am missing something.” My goal is to help people to discover how their unconscious biases may have led to erroneous assumptions, with a combination of curiosity and compassion, rather than humiliate them or put them on the defensive.
A popular quote puts it this way: Diversity Is Being Invited to the Party; Inclusion Is Being Asked to Dance. Author of the excellent book How Good People Fight Bias: The Person You Mean to Be, author Dolly Chugh distinguishes between diversity and inclusion like this:  “Think of diversity as the gateways to schools, organizations and communities, and inclusion as the pathways leading up to and after that gateway. Gateways are the decision points when we track the diversity numbers….pathways are the moments that shape those outcomes… (which are) not tracked by a formal statistic.”By examining and addressing our unconscious biases, we can all play a more meaningful role in creating the pathways that lead to the best possible outcomes.


Recommended resources:
Unconscious Bias resources list used for designing my new workshop – downloadable PDF file, which includes links to all of the resources listed below
Blindspot – book by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthothy Greenwald
The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias – book by Dolly Chugh
Privileged – Excellent article by Utah Jazz player Kyle Korver on the responsibilities white privilege brings and why it’s time to actively stand down to racism
Magazine article – “Model Minority” Myth
Free online test from Harvard’s Project Implicit – Implicit Association Test